Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Chevillotte Hervé, Pierre Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Guilaine Londez, Gaëlle Jantet, Justine Bachelet, Lauriane Riquet, Eléna Plonka, Héloïse Bresc, and Jonathan Couzinié.
A 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. She is assisted by a companion, and the relationship between the two women develops into a romantic love affair.
Paul Verhoeven wastes no time, quickly revealing a darkly comedic tone for Benedetta. Depicted as a child in the opening sequence, Benedetta, who is about to be sold off to a 17th-century Pescailalini convent, enacts crude revenge on a guard attempting to steal an heirloom from her mother by making aware her connection to God, where right on cue, a bird drops some feces from the sky. Not only is this a rarebit of hilarious toilet humor, but it also establishes the dynamic that maybe Benedetta (the film claims to be based on actual events, the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith Brown, and adapted for the screen by David Birke) is telling the truth.
Either way, the convent, headed up by Mother Superior Felicita (reliable veteran Charlotte Rampling), is about to marry Benedetta to Jesus Christ, whatever that means. Paul Verhoeven also illustrates this connection through several visions of biblical subversion and bursts of graphic violence, including beheadings of humans and creatures alike that slide right into this intentionally melodramatic concept that consistently straddles the line between exploitation and serious-minded provocation. Now played by Virginie Efira some years later as an adult, Benedetta is somewhat reaching a fever pitch for these hallucinations that instruct her day-to-day life, which is also redefined and further complicated by the arrival of an incestuously sexually abused younger woman escaping and seeking sanctuary named Bartolomea (played as rebellious, freethinking, defiant, and seductive by Daphne Patakia).
The sexual tension is laid on as thick and unsubtle as everything else in Benedetta. Still, that same sharpened perspective and on-point thematic skewering (here, the target is religion spiraling out into the many forms of irrational paranoia and sickening violence it takes on) has been a staple of Paul Verhoeven’s filmography and a reason masterpieces such as Robocop have stood the test of time. On that note, and as weird as it may sound, the nuttiness and forward momentum of Benedetta that continuously breaks down into chaos share a lot in common tonally with that seminal sci-fi landmark takedown of Reagan era politics.
As Benedetta develops a case of stigmata, the convent becomes increasingly confident that she is their savior of sorts, anointing her the position of Mother Superior. All of this has an intriguing effect on Benedetta psychologically, who not only feels protected by God while engaging in activities considered impure, she starts to develop her own flaws leaving her character open-ended as accurate to her word or a false prophet growing more unhinged by the day. It should also come as no surprise that those sex scenes border between exploitative depictions of lust and sexual repression and are sincerely steamy.
Wisely, Paul Verhoeven realizes it doesn’t matter if Benedetta is telling the truth or not. The outrage that occurs from accusations of the romantic affair with extreme punishment to be dished out if proven true is the actual conflict. The potential connection with God is a key toward studying and criticizing the actions and responses of so-called believers. With the bubonic plague spreading, all of these plot threads are granted another fascinating dimension, one that serves as the springboard for anarchy; a total societal collapse aligns with recent current events.
Still not sold? A Virgin Mary statue is repurposed into a dildo. Good luck resisting that temptation. Seriously, though, while some characters and their motivations can feel slightly underdeveloped due to the film’s breakneck pacing, Benedetta functions beyond its “sacrilegious” concept (anyone offended by the film’s existence can go fuck themselves with the same Virgin Mary dildo) into a moving tale of romance, diabolical oppression, twisted comedy, frenzied plague fear, and transfixing visions that shock and penetrate the mind.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.comv