When director Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, a scene involving a sex toy used by lesbian Italian nuns in the 17th century caused quite a stir. But Cannes is known for its avant garde boundary-pushing, and the controversy over “Benedetta” soon subsided because of the equally surprising “Titane,” which featured a woman having sex with a car.
In the battle for the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ top prize, “Titane” prevailed. But “Benedetta,” which is opening in theaters Dec. 3 is still quite memorable.
Verhoeven, who’s known to many U.S. audiences for “Basic Instinct” but revered by European cineastes for such art films as “Elle,” is often willing to go where few directors have gone before, not necessarily for the publicity but because he frequently explores murky themes of violence, religion and sexuality. And the audience is often not sure whether some of his main characters are psychopaths or merely misunderstood. There’s a middle ground, of course, offering the viewer the option of moral ambiguity.
That’s the case with “Benedetta,” which is adapted from Judith C. Brown’s book, “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” The movie script from David Birke tries to strike a balance while juggling religion, sexuality and the Catholic church’s political scheming.
It stars Virginie Efira as Benedetta, a nun who became the bride of Jesus early in life. She entered the convent before puberty, bringing along a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and a sizable dowry from her well-to-do family.
Once she’s an adult, she becomes sort of a rising star at the convent, with disturbing religious and erotic visions that threaten the position of Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling).
In particular, Benedetta survives a near-crushing while praying to a large religious statue that falls on top of her. She also raises her hands, which are bleeding — a sign of the stigmata that causes some of the nuns to fall to their knees.
As such events become more frequent, the Abbess and others begin to wonder whether Benedetta is sincerely communicating with Christ — or putting on an act. Verhoeven, of course, prefers to let you decide.
Life at the convent becomes even more tumultuous with the arrival of
Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a victim of paternal rape and in desperate need of a friend.
Benedetta not only befriends her, but also becomes her lover. Benedetta rationalizes that it’s okay to have a sexual relationship with the new arrival, especially after she has a vision of stripping the loincloth off a statue of Christ, revealing that he has female genitalia. And it makes thematic sense that Benedetta and Bartolomea might see a wooden icon of the Virgin Mary as a possible sex toy.
That last line in this review might make some roll their eyes, but here’s the explanation by Efira, talking about her Benedetta in press notes for the film:
“It’s very possible that nuns masturbate at night, while thinking very hard about Jesus,” she says. “Does that detract from their belief, their idea of the absolute? No, I don’t think so. Paul had warned me about the dildo. I don’t think his idea was to.smash the sacred to bits. … Religion forbids things, as if it were possible to lock away impulses, desires, urges and the unconscious in a little box. Except it doesn’t work like that. It’s important not to reduce the dildo to an immature prank, the desire to shock. It makes sense in the overall narrative of the film. … Trying to shock, honestly, is just so old.”
Despite the controversy over the sex scenes, “Benedetta” offers a lot of humor amid the nunnery machinations.
When a doubting Thomas of a nun asks Benedetta whether Jesus had any advice for the rival nun, Benedetta says, “No, he didn’t mention you!” And when Benedetta is washing the feet of the Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), she strikes a similar tone when he tells her that she looks like a whore. Benedetta replies, with dripping irony, that he must be very familiar with whores.
Obviously, “Benedetta” is not for those who might be offended by mixing religion and sex in a movie.
But it’s a biting, provocative look at a young woman who is a complex heroine, full of a lust for Christ as well as more earthly yearnings.
“Benedetta” opens in theaters Dec. 3