NYFF 2021 review: Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)

“Paul Verhoeven’s new ecclesiastical drama finds him in typically sharp form, his proclivity to startle, provoke, confound and offend largely undiminished.”

Whether Benedetta Carlini (1591–1661) was a con woman who fraudulently scammed the Catholic Church or a genuine instrument of God who communicated his unfiltered word, each viewer must decide for herself or himself. What is less ambiguous and up for debate is that Paul Verhoeven’s new ecclesiastical drama, based on real-life events that occurred in Renaissance Italy, finds him in typically sharp form, his proclivity to startle, provoke, confound and offend largely undiminished.

Ostensibly based on Judith C. Brown’s English-language non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film presents a distinctly Italian story in French, due to the director’s greater comfort with the latter language. Part biography, part history, it charts the trial of eponymous real-life figure Sister Benedetta (played by Virginie Efira) for her lesbian love affair with fellow nun Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) as well as accusations of faking the Stigmata (spontaneously appearing wounds on a devotee of Jesus corresponding to the wounds he suffered during crucifixion). Screenwriters David Birke (returning Elle alumnus) and Verhoeven himself spin an elaborate tale of godly visions, church politics, the bubonic plague and of course homosexual desire – enlivened with some on-brand sex and nudity – though not nearly as much as you might be led to believe.

Verhoeven’s return to Cannes earlier this year, five years after the triumphal reception of Elle (2016), was met with a decidedly muted reaction with the international press largely focusing on the more salacious aspects of the film – the voluptuous sexual encounters between Efira and Patakia (shot by a female DOP but without an intimacy coordinator on set) and the infamous Virgin Mary wooden statue used as a dildo. To reduce the film to just another edition of the dreaded “nunsploitation” genre is to miss the point entirely. The film is arch, but not camp, sexy but not sleazy. Such a reading side-steps what is by all accounts Verhoeven’s genuine inquiry into questions of faith and belief, forgiveness and spiritual absolution. For this reviewer at least, the film capably works as a straight drama too. The entertaining genre contours should not detract from its seriousness of purpose.

The film starts out by letting the viewers in on Benedetta’s point of view, and we see her visions just as she does. Presented in CGI-enhanced tableaus, the visions are both lurid and restrained at the same time – when Benedetta strips Jesus of his loincloth on the cross, we see Jesus not with full-frontal nudity but as a Ken doll – without genitals. Over time though Benedetta’s point of view recedes into opacity as events in the film escalate. The character’s eventual inscrutability might frustrate and alienate viewers and make them feel they are being held at a distance, as late in the game even when her lover asks her, Benedetta refuses to clarify what she does and does not believe. The central character’s unreadability might seem to reflect the similar ambiguity presented by Verhoeven’s previous protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s iconic Michèle Leblanc in Elle, though Huppert arguably let the audience in a little bit more whereas Efira intentionally does not.

Efira has been a steadily rising leading lady of French cinema after recent films like Victoria (2016), Sibyl (2019), and Bye Bye Morons (2020) and Benedetta is clearly meant as a star vehicle for Efira the way Elle was for Huppert, with the same above-the-title billing and star focus provided to her. Perhaps she does not yet pack in as much star power in terms of international media and audience interest as Huppert does, but she delivers an excellent performance and navigates a tricky role with assurance.

The performer who fares best of all might actually be Charlotte Rampling as Benedetta’s primary antagonist – the demoted Abbess Felicita who engages in a prolonged and bruising battle of wills with Benedetta for supremacy. Her withering dialogue delivery and cutting lines inject a cold dash of rationality and humor into the film. At one point she says – and I paraphrase – “Miracles are more trouble than they are worth” when first faced with Benedetta’s miracles. She nearly steals the film from under Efira’s nose.

Patakia provides wonderful support, as does Lambert Wilson as the oily scheming Nuncio, who enters the film late in the game as things come to a head. The third act does get unruly with several twists and reversals, back-room deals, and double and triple crosses, and not all of them land with the necessary impact. Yet Verhoeven never loses control of the drama and does bring it to a thoughtful and thought-provoking conclusion. This is a film that will reward careful contemplation by a discerning audience.

Tech credits are strong with several people from Elle returning behind the camera. Period recreation is modest but handsome – we remain play-like bound to only the Abbey and one central square in Pescia for the duration of the film – and Verhoeven is able to conjure up several arresting images. Special mention should go to Anne Dudley’s dramatic score. Incorporation of 12th century Abbess Hildegard Bingen’s liturgical hymns and chants into the film is entirely appropriate and enhances the film’s historical appeal.

Any topicality related to an unseen disease sweeping the land and forcing the people to board up and stay put is strictly incidental, as Benedetta began filming in 2018 and was delayed first by the director’s broken hip and then by the cancelled 2020 edition of the Cannes Film Festival due to the Covid pandemic. Though the film was shot before the lockdown, there is a notable lack of extras in the large crowd scenes – a shortcoming affecting not just humble European productions but even mega-budget Hollywood projects of late.

After a less than stellar rollout at Cannes and modest box office performance at home, Benedetta will try its fortunes once again on the fall festival circuit where it has play dates at the New York and London film festivals in place. General release in many territories will follow.

Elaborate ruse or genuine believer – Benedetta’s story is a fascinating one that challenges codes of patriarchy and the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church, and who better to bring this story to the screen than the incorrigible enfant terrible Paul Verhoeven. As Pier Paolo Pasolini proved before him, artists who are non-believers are perhaps best placed to make art about faith. Verhoeven is not done with the subject yet and has often expressed a desire to make a film about the life of Jesus (based on the book he wrote). Maybe Benedetta is a dress rehearsal for that project, but whenever he gets around to making it, we will be watching with interest.