The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - BENEDETTA | The Movie Waffler


benedetta review
The story of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century lesbian nun who may have been possessed by a demon.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson

benedetta poster

A biopic of a 17th century nun may not seem like a natural fit for the director of Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, but Benedetta Carlini was no ordinary nun. She was a lesbian who believed herself possessed by a demon named Splenditello. Okay, that's more like it. I suspect the real life Benedetta didn't resemble the sort of attractive blondes Verhoeven likes to cast, but we'll let him away with that one.

From the off, we're firmly in Verhoeven territory as he introduces us to a grimy period landscape not unlike that portrayed in his medieval romp Flesh + Blood, though there's a bit more flesh and a little less blood on display here. Pestilence and banditry ravages the Italian countryside, so you can see why someone might want to lock themselves away in a convent.

benedetta review

That's the choice made by Benedetta, who enters the Convent of the Mother of God in the region of Pescia as a child. We quickly cut to 18 years later and Benedetta is all grown up in the form of rising Belgian star Virginie Efira. A life without a man hasn't bothered her, as she only has eyes for Jesus, who comes to her in explicit visions. That's until she sets her eyes on Bartolomeo (Daphne Patakia), a peasant girl taken into the convent. Bartolomeo's crude ways stand out within the sacred walls of the convent, and Benedetta finds herself drawn to this curiously unfettered young woman.

At roughly the same time as she begins to hook up in secret with Bartolomeo, Benedetta displays stigmata scars and begins speaking in the voice of a male demon which sounds a lot like the one from that notorious Days of Our Lives plotline back in the '90s. Is Benedetta faking it or is she genuinely possessed? The movie keeps its cards close to its chest in this matter, as you might expect from Verhoeven, who is a Jesus scholar while professing a lack of belief in the spiritual.

benedetta review

In many ways Benedetta's plot echoes that of Showgirls. Like that film's heroine Nomi Malone, Benedetta arrives at a community that stands out from its sparse surrounds and becomes determined to rise to the top within its walls. The Gina Gershon figure here is the convent's abbess, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is enjoying something of a late career revival of late. A powerplay begins between Benedetta and the abbess as the former's ruthless determination to take over the convent rises.

Benedetta has been compared to the '70s golden age of nunsploitation movies, but such a comparison only stands up on a surface level. In those movies, the innocent heroine was almost always threatened by her fellow nuns. In a surprisingly feminist move, Verhoeven turns the tables on this idea. The threat to Benedetta comes not from the Abbess, who turns out to be quite a kindly figure, in stark contrast to the sort of battleaxe mother superior types we expect of this sub-genre. Rather Benedetta is threatened by the male authority figures of the Catholic Church. Rather than a place whose walls conceal unspeakable terrors, the convent is portrayed as a sanctuary where women can live together in safety, free from the horrors of the male dominated world outside.

benedetta review

Thus, while critiquing organised religion, Verhoeven also acknowledges why some might be drawn to it as a means of escape from reality. Of course, as a self-confessed provocateur, the Dutchman has a lot of fun poking the bear that is Catholicism, especially in his use of that most sacred icon, the Virgin Mary. Early on we see the young Benedetta sucking on the exposed nipple of a life-size Mary statue, while later a small figurine of the Virgin is reconstituted as a dildo. The hypocrisy of church leaders provides some stinging barbs, such as when an especially sinister Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) accuses Benedetta of possessing a "whore's touch," to which she replies by promising not to ask how he might be familiar with such a sensation.

At over two hours, Benedetta can feel unwieldy in parts, but just when we might find ourselves beginning to drift away like a sleepy kid in church, Verhoeven throws another bit of madness on the screen to jolt us upright. The Catholic Church is an easy target at this point, and you might accuse Verhoeven of engaging in immature behaviour here with his blasphemous ways. But if you can't enjoy a little bawdy fun at the expense of one of the world's most powerful and disruptive institutions, you've probably got a Virgin Mary figurine stuck up your arse.

Benedetta is on MUBI UK now.