Cast: Virginie Efira, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau. Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Nobody provokes an audience quite like Paul Verhoeven, when he comes out with a new movie there’s going to be controversy, debate and split opinions. When Paul Verhoeven comes to town with a true-life story tackling lesbianism and organised religion? It’s biblical.
In 17th century Italian, Benedetta Carlini is a devout nun living in a covenant. After a series of visions cause Benedetta to fall ill novice nun Bartolomea is placed to watch over her, where they begin a sexual relationship much to chagrin of the Abbess, but her visions inspire the town.
To begin with, Virginie Efira is sensational as Benedetta, radiating not only sensuality at every turn but allowing the audience to have a split opinion on Benedetta herself. Her devout faith is both inspiring and alarming, her visions could be the effect of a mental illness or dirilium or they could be messages from the almighty himself. She’s visited by visions of her “husband” Jesus saving her from being attacked by brutally dispatching people with sword, she insists she is suffering from stigmata.
Efira and Daphne Patakia who plays Bartolomea both manage to create passion and chemistry on screen that is about both seducing one another. Bartolomea initiates sexual contact, but Benedetta wields more power. Both of them together scorch the screen not only with the intense sexual scenes but also with the scenes of conversations, a feeling between them that they are both enraptured by belief.
This is where Verhoeven is at his most interesting, for all the full frontal nudity and carving wooden figures of the blessed Virgin mother into sex toys (no really), Verhoeven is talking about organised religion. The Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) rules the Abbey with a iron fist, but she herself is a sinner, despite her horror at the sexual congress of two nuns, she has a daughter. A nun should not partake of sexual intercourse, this hypocrisy is at the heart of the film.
The church is filled with authority figures flaunting the faith of young people desperate for guidance and fearful families to their own ends. The town in which the Abbey sits is filled with the poor and hungry while the Nuncio (a diplomatic envoy of the Pope) wears expensive robes and clearly has a mistress within his own ranks. The price paid for women to be inducted into the covent is done as if the religion is offering the chance to be in heaven for a hefty fee instead of sisterhood being a calling open to all.
Verhoeven’s style is never understated, and so yes the extreme scenes of torture and sex are what grabs the attention, but it’s the comment beneath that really sink. Verhoeven might be too interested in the form of human to look at the divine, but the film poses a question is doesn’t explore. Is Benedetta a conduit for the almighty or is she experiencing a crisis in herself? Are her visions just hallucination brought on by an overzealous belief in divinity and an awakening inside herself she cannot reconcile or is God speaking through her?
The film poses both as possible but never really explores either, while certain moments in the film don’t land well enough to really engage with what it means for either Benedetta to believe she is a mouth-piece for God or for Bartolomea to believe in both Benedetta’s divinity or her growing desire to be with her.
What does work though is the grand scale of the film, the score by Anne Dudley and the cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie are gorgeous to look at and hear and evoke the time perfectly. There’s never a feeling that this is constrained in any way the performances modulate that perfectly.
The controversy of the film should really be less about the lesbianism and more about how the film shows that organised religion most often is a front for corruption and lies, where those in authority are going against the bible – a telling moment sees the Abbess decry that “Jesus doesn’t let the wealthy into heaven” while hoarding money and withholding bread. Verhoeven is taking aim at religion and distracting audience with sexy nuns – and the world is buying into it. Praise be.