More Than a Provocation, Lesbian Nun Drama 'Benedetta' Tackles Questions of Sexuality and Spirituality | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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More Than a Provocation, Lesbian Nun Drama 'Benedetta' Tackles Questions of Sexuality and Spirituality

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SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES Efira plays a Renaissance nun with a bit of a God complex in Verhoeven's surprisingly thoughtful drama. - COURTESY OF IFC FILMS
  • Courtesy Of IFC Films
  • SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES Efira plays a Renaissance nun with a bit of a God complex in Verhoeven's surprisingly thoughtful drama.

Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has always had a talent for pissing people off. Back in 1992, members of the LGBTQ community picketed his thriller Basic Instinct for its portrayal of a bisexual femme fatale. Now the Dutch director's Benedetta, a vaguely fact-based drama about lesbian nuns in 17th-century Italy, has some religious groups up in arms. You can see what the fuss is about at Montpelier's Savoy Theater.

The deal

Since childhood, Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has believed that she has a special relationship with Jesus and the Virgin Mary. With her visions and fainting spells, she seems pretty extra to her fellow nuns in a Tuscan convent. The no-nonsense Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling) tries to rein in Benedetta's convictions, to little avail.

A peasant girl named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) seeks refuge in the convent, fleeing her father's abuse. Benedetta takes the half-feral newcomer under her wing. When Bartolomea makes sexual advances to her, she rebuffs them. But increasingly lurid dreams involving a hunky Jesus change Benedetta's mind, and the women become lovers.

Soon bleeding stigmata appear on Benedetta's body. She claims to speak the will of God for the entire village, putting herself and her girlfriend on a collision course with the powers that be. Meanwhile, a comet glows in the sky, and the Black Plague approaches.

Will you like it?

If you know Verhoeven mainly for his notorious '90s oeuvre — Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers — you may expect Benedetta to be a camp fest. In fact, it's closer in tone to the director's more recent Elle — a chamber drama laced with subtle veins of dark humor. Though torture, plague and self-flagellation feature in the plot, they're presented straightforwardly, as commonplace horrors of the story's era. The sex scenes are equally matter-of-fact. The film's most outrageous moments take place in Benedetta's dreams, but isn't that what dreams are for?

Benedetta is loosely based on Judith C. Brown's book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, which chronicles how Benedetta Carlini challenged the Church establishment in Rome with her spirituality and her sexuality. Verhoeven (who scripted with David Birke) seems interested in both aspects of her rebellion — and even more interested in their intersections with politics and economics.

The Mother Superior runs her convent like a business, demanding a hefty "dowry" for each daughter of the aristocracy whom she accepts as a novice. It's no wonder she's bemused by Benedetta's mysticism — to her practical mind, miracles are trouble.

For her part, Benedetta is a fascinating figure: saint, martyr, cult leader and con artist in one. In a mesmerizing performance, Efira is petulant, terrifying and regal by turns. As the film goes on, we may find ourselves identifying with Bartolomea, who is drawn to Benedetta but a little afraid of her — with reason.

Sometimes it's easy to dismiss Benedetta as a spoiled little girl with delusions of holiness, as the Mother Superior attempts to do. But when Benedetta issues commands in a hoarse male voice that she claims is Christ speaking directly through her, she's formidable and arguably proto-feminist. The local priests try to take advantage of her visions to their own political ends, but Benedetta proves to be more than they bargained for. She destabilizes a world that is already tipping toward chaos, with the plague lurking just outside the gates.

Perhaps Benedetta's most revolutionary act is demanding physical pleasure. When she's still a child, an older nun (Guilaine Londez) instructs her to view her body as an enemy and never to feel "at home" in her own skin. Pain and suffering are the route to God, she learns — a perennial theme that was also explored in the 2019 film Saint Maud.

More narcissist than masochist, Benedetta struggles with the notion of salvation through self-mortification. Then her imagination figures out a way to unite her sexual urges and her spiritual ones, and she embraces her new faith and never looks back.

If Benedetta were a movie that simply traded on the provocation of putting nuns in sexual situations, it would get boring quickly. It works because it's a twisty, satisfying drama with a compelling central character study. Neither hero nor villain, Benedetta conceals an iron ego beneath the dimply maternal glow of a Madonna. She was dangerous in the Renaissance, and she might even be dangerous now.

If you like this, try...

The Little Hours (2017; Kanopy, Hulu, Sling TV, Paramount+, Philo, rentable): Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie play misbehaving nuns in this comedy based on a bawdy tale from the book The Decameron — a reminder that Renaissance views of the clergy weren't always reverential.

Rebel Hearts (2021; Discovery+): Sister Benedetta was far from the last nun to stand up to the patriarchs of the Catholic Church. This documentary explores the progressive activism of Los Angeles' Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the 1960s.

Beyond the Hills (2012; IFC Films Unlimited, AMC+, Criterion Channel): In this tense Romanian drama, modern ways clash with medieval ones as a young woman tries to persuade her former lover to leave a rural convent. Filmmaker Jeremy Hersh calls it "the most underrated queer film of the decade."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Benedetta 4"