Which is preferable, the tangible disappointment of truth or the hollow ecstasy of fantasy? Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta is less interested in coming down on either side than it is in showing the inextricability of these two states, the psychosexual points of contact at which they interpenetrate and grow together. The nun Benedetta (Virginie Efir) dreams of the transforming power of her carnal love for the young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), then finds herself afraid to endure in the world that power creates. The abbess (Charlotte Rampling) of their convent imagines a future in which her humiliation at Benedetta’s hands pays dividends for the nunnery, attracting ecclesiastical attention and wealthy patrons eager to witness Benedetta’s miracles, but even after a life of shrewd financial maneuvering, fails to conceive of the human cost the pursuit of such riches might incur.
Fittingly, Verhoeven’s latest straddles an aesthetic divide between the staid conventions of the costume drama and the riotous sensibilities of nunsploitation. Its ecstatic, hyperviolent vision sequences in which Benedetta comes face to face with Christ, who desires her and frequently kills to protect her, are straight out of Ken Russell’s The Devils. In one scene Benedetta grasps Christ’s hands as he hangs crucified, the nails piercing his palms penetrating her own in the throes of their passion. If its scenes of plague and urban suffering are a little underwhelmingly staged, its color grading a little plain and its aesthetics overly tidy, it only heightens the contrast between the almost businesslike culture of the monastery and the red-hot sexual tension between Bartolomea and Benedetta.
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Take Me to Church
Much of the film’s tension derives from the dual nature of the nunnery as a refuge for women and a site of intense and intimate feminine subjugation both within the hierarchy of the nuns themselves and stemming from the church’s sovereignty. Verhoeven devotes a great deal of time to the petty cruelties and relationships between the nuns, creating an atmosphere not unlike a prison exploitation flick in which strong personalities and sexual urges are magnified by a secluded and highly regimented setting. The near-feral Bartolomea, saved from her incestuous and abusive household by an act of grudging generosity on the part of Benedetta’s noble father, who pays for her installation at the nunnery at Benedetta’s request, serves as a prime example of this dichotomy. As played by Patakia, Bartolomea is earthy and unstudied, quick to anger and devoid of grace or manners. She is uninterested in imagining a better world, in examining the larger ramifications of her lusts and grudges.
Yet it’s Bartolomea who can actually adjust to seismic change, who can live without the religious strictures which Benedetta bridles at, rebels against, and finally crawls back to. Is it Benedetta’s spoiled and privileged early life which renders her unwilling to follow love into physical and mental hardship? Perhaps it’s the indoctrination of the church, even after its attempts to put her to death for blasphemy and Sapphism. Confronted with the radical transfiguration of her world, with the collapse of oppressive authority and the staggering act of plague-fueled love and spite which closes out the film’s climax, Benedetta’s messianic drive collapses utterly. Verhoeven’s film is a flawed but fascinating work, held back at times by inadequate special effects and tame design choices but propelled by gripping, human characters from whose sexual and spiritual foibles the director gently exhumes the shape of love.