18 June 2024

Film Review – Benedetta (2021)

Paul Verhoeven. A name that comes complete with certain assumptions – think Basic Instinct and the even more notorious Showgirls. His latest, Benedetta, has already garnered a reputation since doing last year’s festival circuit, along with the “nunsploitation” label. With its nudity and sexual content, it’s typically Verhoeven – yet it’s also surprisingly conventional and lacking in anything especially erotic.

What goes on behind convent walls has been the subject of lurid speculation for centuries – for some reason monasteries aren’t quite so fascinating – and Verhoeven’s tale is based on Judith C Brown’s “Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy”, a time when corruption and the plague were equally rife. Benedetta joins the convent in Pescia at the tender age of eight and is immediately associated with what looks like a minor miracle. Eighteen years later, she’s a fully-fledged nun who helps local girl Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) when she seeks sanctuary from her brutal father. The two become close and, when the nuns learn that Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is not only having visions of the Christ but also displays the stigmata, they decide it’s a sign from God that she’s been chosen to lead the convent and install her as Mother Superior. By the time plague threatens the city, everybody believes she’s the only person who can keep it away – but her relationship with Bartolomea is also public knowledge.

The Catholic Church in 17th century Italy, as depicted here, is far from charitable or incorruptible. The Abbesse (Charlotte Rampling) presides over the convent with a cold business eye: she has a minimum price for new postulants and, swamped with applicants, she won’t accept a penny less. Her own daughter, Christina (Louise Chevillotte), is also a nun and serves as her mother’s eyes and ears. And the Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who presides over them all, lives a life of luxury, his every need tended to by a heavily pregnant courtesan, who flaunts her condition with relish. While there’s a serious point to be made here, it’s done with such a level of camp that it’s reduced to the comic and ridiculous. And that applies particularly to the Nuncio himself.

It’s not a great time to be a woman, either. They’re treated horrifically – not only was Bartolomea raped and abused by her father and brothers, but when her relationship with Benedetta is discovered, she’s tortured into confession with a gruesome instrument designed specifically for the female anatomy. No wonder, then, that she seeks compassion and love where she can find it. The portrayal of the physical relationship between the two is explicit, especially in their use of a carving of the Virgin Mary, which is perhaps its most sensational aspect. Yet, despite Bartolomea’s street smarts, there’s little in the way of real passion and, once the film’s sexual content is put to one side – it doesn’t occupy much screen time – all that remains is a fairly conventional story of a nun who was first believed to be a saint, and then a witch. And parallels with the likes of The Devils, Black Narcissus and even The Crucible stalk the narrative at every turn.

Jeanne Lapoirie’s camerawork re-creates the period beautifully, with some scenes looking like renaissance paintings brought to life, but it’s not enough to keep your attention for the two hours-plus running time. Verhoeven takes too much time with this one, adding nothing new or different to the convent-set dramas which have both gone before and done it better, so it’s not long before your attention starts to wander. Just like the film.

★★ 1/2

Drama, History | Cert: 18 | Cinemas on 15 April 2022.  | MUBI | Dir. Paul Verhoeven | Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Louise Chevillotte, Lambert Wilson.

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