Yet another French film in competition of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is this titillating, provocative and at times outrageous ‘Benedetta’ by Paul Verhoeven.
Verhoeven followers will recall that, in contrast to his risqué reputation, he came out with a scholarly book in 2008 called Jesus Of Nazareth, which was generally praised as a deeply researched and intelligent investigation in Jesus’ life and thoughts. When he decided not to pursue that as a film, he turned his attention to ‘Benedetta’, which is based on a 1986 non-fiction book by Judith C. Brown, ‘Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy’.
Set in Tuscany in the late 1600s (it was shot mostly in the area of Montepulciano), the film reveals all the immodest acts one can think of taking place in the nunnery of city of Pesca. The nunnery is overseen by the aging Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) and it’s an estimable, exclusive establishment that only admits three novices per year – at an average dowry cost for each.
Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira), was promised as a bride of Jesus by her father from a young age. Her ability to communicate with Jesus is quite remarkable. Benedetta’s visions of her saviour slaying demonic snakes and villains are all playing out in front of our eyes – in violent yet somewhat comical way. Everything seems to be idyllic in the nunnery until new novice Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives to bring temptation, suffering, pain… and pleasure.
As Sister Benedetta submits to the temptation to experience pleasures of physical closeness with Sister Bartholomea, her visions and channelling of Christ intensify to a point where Benedetta starts channeling wrath of Jesus in quite a dramatic way. After she demonstrates the signs of stigmata [are the appearance of bodily wounds, scars and pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ], the politics in the nunnery take a notch up.
The film exposes the corruption of body and spirit that permeated the church in those days, the battle for power as Benedetta is made a saint and replaces Abbess Felicita in her role. Every human is corruptible, be it corruption of spirit or body, even those devoted to service of god are not exempt. And a reminder from a priest at the beginning of a film ‘you must pray that the suffering finds you’ gives Benedetta permission to struggle and find her path.
The amount of explicit scenes in a film is head-spinning. But it wouldn’t be Verhoeven had it not been the case.
The amount of explicit scenes in a film is head-spinning. But it wouldn’t be Verhoeven had it not been the case. The trouble comes to the little town of Pesca when the plague descends upon Italy. Meanwhile, the abbess Benedetta is embroiled in scandal and accused of blasphemy and bestiality.
The trial, led by Le Nonce (Lambert Wilson), is one big hot mess – scenes of torture are quite vivid and grotesque but Benedetta’s devotion to Jesus is unwavering. Disgraced as a result of the trial, she is sentenced to death by burning but things turn around in her favour when adoring public revolts and kills Le Nonce. Benedetta has a message from Jesus – as long as she is alive, the plague will stay away from Pesca. And so, disgraced, she lived in the cloister until the age of 70.
Verhoeven has seemingly embraked on a mystical mission to marry earthly and divine in this beautifully shot masterpiece. Forgive it’s slow start and you are in for a treat.
Benedetta does not have a UK release date yet.
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