In the late 17th century, with plague ravaging the land, Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) joins the convent in Pescia, Tuscany, as a novice. Capable from an early age of performing miracles, Benedetta’s impact on life in the community is immediate and momentous.
Benedetta is a 17th century woman who has acquired real power, both in her convent of 'Theatine' nuns and in her town of Pescia. Benedetta is famous as a saint and as abbess of the convent. She reaches positions of power through her talent, visions, manipulations, lies and creativity. Whatever the means, she manages it in a society and era totally dominated by men. Women counted for nothing, except male sexual gratification and reproduction. They held no positions of power. What does physical climax bring her? Benedetta has a strong belief in Jesus, and she's also looking for power. She's not all sweetness and altruism. She takes sexual pleasure without giving it. The issue of love intersects with that of faith. The film shows the conflict between faith, in the private sphere, and clergy, as a component of a system of power. The theme is an intrinsic part of Benedetta’s story. If you take a closer look at her case, she's clearly a fervent believer. Her visions of Jesus may have been authentic, while also being a means to obtaining what she wanted. Benedetta truly believe she's Jesus’s bride. Every time, she sees him as a shepherd guiding his flock, in keeping with the imagery of St. John’s Gospel. From the moment Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) joins the convent, roughly sixty minutes of the film are devoted to the gradual crystallization of their lesbian love affair.
After Bartolomea slips a finger into her lover’s behind for the first time, She sees Jesus, who tells her that she must resist Bartolomea and stay with him. At that point, Benedetta is still deferring to the religious orthodoxy of the time. She obeys Jesus and abides by the rules. She even punishes Bartolomea by forcing her to plunge her hands into boiling water in a demonstration of tough love. In the end, the erotic attraction is too strong. And then Benedetta has another vision, in which Jesus tells her that the previous apparitions were a false Jesus, an impostor. Benedetta’s visions take her in opposite directions depending on the circumstances! Later, another vision has Jesus ordering Benedetta to strip naked, saying there's no shame in it. Benedetta’s visions provide what she needs. She has her own private Jesus constantly at her side. Of course, that Jesus is a creation of her brain. It’s Benedetta’s psyche generating the visions, but she genuinely believes in them. Benedetta dreams up a Jesus who permits her to have sexual relations with Bartolomea. Benedetta is no saint, either. She reaches a point where she cannot bear dissent. There are also some very funny notes; when Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) asks Benedetta if Jesus gave her advice, she replies, 'No, he didn’t mention you!' It’s important not to forget that the film is funny.
Bartolomea is direct and frank, tending toward how a modern young woman might express herself with regard to sexual desire. She was the victim of rapes within her family. In western Europe, notably in the Netherlands, where there are no longer very many believers, Bartolomea is most likely seen as more sympathetic. It's not the case in other parts of the world, where there are strong religious movements, such as the United States with it's evangelicals. People like them would probably empathize more with Benedetta than Bartolomea. It’s interesting to note that the evangelical concept goes back to the Middle Ages. The man as head of the family, the wife secondary and only there to satisfy the man. To see that concept in 2021 is very surprising. Moreover, that concerns every religion. Bartolomea and Benedetta use a statuette of the 'Virgin Mary' as a dildo. It’s more than an object, it perfectly encapsulates the conflict between Catholic taboos and sex, between body and mind, which is present throughout the movie. For Bartolomea, it's just an object. For Benedetta, the object is of high symbolic value, but she abandons that on her journey to love.
There's a shot where Benedetta and Bartolomea are performing forbidden sex acts, while in the background, the statue of the Virgin Mary is illuminated by a candle. That shot sums it up; let’s ignore rules and taboos, let’s do what we want. In the book, Bartolomea is the main witness at Benedetta’s trial. She tells the inquisitors that she's abused by Benedetta, who forced her into sexual relations. That’s one of the major changes the film makes in comparison with the book. Bartolomea doesn’t seem to believe in Benedetta’s love. It’s like a disavowal for her, as if she were not loved enough. It’s difficult to shine a light on the person whose love is real, and the person whose love is not..Christina (Louise Chevilotte) is another interesting character. When she becomes aware of Benedetta’s manipulations, she denounces her because, for Christina, it's blasphemy. Soeur Felicita, the abbess, retorts, however, that Christina is blaspheming by refusing to believe Benedetta. Once more, who's right and who's wrong? Except that Christina was not there to see
Benedetta’s manipulations. She's caught in her own trap, in her own lie, even though she's basically right. The religious authorities are happy to think of Benedetta as a medium, a prophetess, and it’s dangerous to go against the deep power doctrine of the Church. So, Christina is compelled to self-flagellate half-naked, and then she commits suicide. She cannot live with the shame. It all comes from her initial lie. To qualify that, Christina is the most realistic, the first to realize that Benedetta is inventing her visions and manipulating everyone around her. By lying, she digs her own grave, which is tragic. It also shows the reach of the deep power of the religious system. The abbess is very authoritarian, but she uses her power with discernment in the context of the times.
Felicita is not a believer, except perhaps when death is approaching. She's a politician who respects extant power structures because it’s in her interest to do so. She denounces Benedetta in the end, but not out of religious conviction, rather for revenge after her daughter’s death. Benedetta drove Christina to suicide. Basically, none of these characters are completely sympathetic! But if you observe the behavior of present-day politicians, they’re not always very likable either. 'The Nuncio' (Lambert Wilson) is a dangerous, threatening character. After Christina’s suicide, there's no menace from within for Benedetta. 'The Nuncio' can be charming, unctuous, smiling. But he's still a man of power. The popular uprising is not in the book. To maintain the narrative tension, the Nuncio has to be intelligent and motivated by the desire to defeat Benedetta.
The film is based on Judith C. Brown’s book, 'Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy'. Judith C. Brown stumbled across the story while researching another project in the archives in Florence. She opened up a box, and found the minutes of the trial of Benedetta, which took place in the early 17th century. She was impressed and intrigued. It’s a rare document. There are no other known trials of lesbians in the history of Christianity. In the original document, the clerk of the court is shocked by the sexual details described by Bartolomea, the nun who slept with Benedetta, that he could hardly write! He left blanks, scratched words out, rewrote them. Bartolomea is very explicit in her account of how they licked each other. The script is a superb balance between religion, sexuality and the Church’s political scheming.
The film never says if Benedetta is a slightly deranged mystic or a manipulator, or both. Right to the end, the film maintains the uncertainty about her deepest nature. Two truths coexist, and the film does not say which is the real truth. You've to accept that some facts can be seen from two different perspectives. There's an assimilation to Arnold Schwarzenegger's dream about reality in "Total Recall". You see a good example of those dual realities later in the movie, when the plague hits; Benedetta tells the crowd in Pescia that Jesus will protect them, then she orders a soldier to shut the city gates, instituting a sort of lockdown! It once more shows her dual nature as a believer and politician. The Church does not prohibit sexual relations, except for members of the clergy. We humans are, fundamentally, animals, right? We've a body and instincts. Benedetta does not resist the call of the flesh, but why would she resist it? Science tells the truth, legends tell stories. That’s how we see it.
The film shows what religion prohibits, especially with regard to sex. The hypocrisy and corruption is at the heart of the religious authorities. It's a film about freedom that's very relevant to the times we live in. Not all mystics believed in Jesus as a means to obtaining positions of power, but mysticism is often the only way for a woman to climb the social ladder. The issue of blasphemy is also shifting, ambivalent, with the accusation bandied about between characters. Yes, blasphemy works both ways. Religion forbids things, as if it's possible to lock away impulses, desire, urges and the unconscious in a little box. Except it doesn’t work like that. It’s important not to reduce the dildo to an immature prank, the desire to shock.
History advances and evolves over the centuries, but it's always subjected to contradictory currents and the advances of civilization. You think that freedom has been won, but no, we get the feeling that a period movie always resonates with the present. We should be happy that in the partisan times we are living in, this film blurs boundaries, with mystery. And it's a film of powerful cinematic convictions.