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Benedetta LFF Film Review

★★★★

 


At the core of Paul Verhoeven’s new film Benedetta there lies an intriguing dilemma: how can a nun attracted to another nun also claim to be the bride of Christ? This dilemma doesn’t necessarily find resolution, but its tensions manifest in the dramatised life of Benedetta Carlini (played with restrained madness by Virginie Efira), a 17th Century nun who had a love affair with fellow nun Bartolomea. Verhoeven’s film draws from Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts, a biographical and critical text about Benedetta; both book and film shed light on the forms of religious performance that enabled women greater social and erotic agency in a time where, as one nun informs Benedetta, “Your body is your worst enemy”.


Ever since being a child, Benedetta saw herself a vessel of the Lord. A scene from her childhood shows the child praying by a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue falls and nearly crushes the child, who finds spiritual nourishment in the statue’s breast, which she sucks as if it were her mother’s. Another nun comments that the child’s survival was something of a miracle, and from the start we are aware that there’s something unique about Benedetta.


Fast forward to young adulthood, Benedetta is still a devout and obedient nun - until the arrival of a young woman pleading to join the convent, Bartolemea (Daphne Patakia, who brings naivety and spiteful mischief to the role). Mutually acknowledging their physical attraction for one another, Benedetta falls prey to a series of erotic hallucinations, where Christ (like some white knight saviour) tries to tempt Benedetta back into heterosexual devotion. However Benedetta tries to bring both desires together, accessing divinity through her love for Bartolemea (perhaps best illustrated by the Virgin Mary figurine which Benedetta uses as a dildo). Her behaviour is later shunned and punished by papal official, the Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) and the convent’s Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) - at which point human and spiritual relationships collide. Benedetta asks directly, Who decides what God wills for us? Who decides what is and is not Love?

Throughout the film, we never quite know whether Benedetta’s miracles are sincere or bogus. She makes claim that Christ pierced her hands and feet, marking her as his bride, but soon there is evidence of self-harm. With an hint of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, accusations build into mob mentality and hysteria. We are forced to probe our own suspicions, as to whether Benedetta is a true mystic, a social-climber, or an unhinged mind unable to reconcile her carnal desire with her devotion to Christ.


While the film falls into moments of sensationalism, it is also a powerfully nuanced exploration of love, hate, ambition, faith, and the shifting power dynamics where pain and pleasure blur together (Verhoeven surely had sadomasochism in mind when shooting scenes of religious self-flagellation). Lesser films have tried to explore similar territory through nightmarish mysticism (Rose Glass’s aggressively banal Saint Maud), but Benedetta is a carefully devious movie, where we slowly sink into its world of apocalypse and delusion, asking who among us can fairly pass judgment?

 

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