Fantastic Fest 2021: The Passion Play of BENEDETTA

Paul Verhoeven’s latest is a sublimely sacrilegious interrogation of belief and organized faith

In the late 1600s, young Italian noblewoman Benedetta Carlini joined the Theatine Convent of Pescia, dedicated to a life betrothed to Christ. Centuries later, historian Judith C. Brown uncovered records of Benedetta’s trial in Florence, where the now-Abbess of Pescia faced supreme scrutiny over allegations of faking her Stigmatic miracles and prophetic visions. However, all of this paled in comparison to her ultimate sin: a lesbian relationship Benedetta indulged in with a fellow Sister, Bartolomea. To the Church, all of the above was an unholy union of blasphemy and sacrilege.

Naturally, it inevitably became the subject of Paul Verhoeven’s latest film.

Known for an eclectic international filmography that runs the genre and quality gamut from Robocop to Elle to Starship Troopers to Showgirls, Verhoeven’s body of work is united by an unabashed passion for pushing his chosen genres to the limits of possibility and palatability. No matter if it’s a sci-fi action flick or a salacious erotic thriller, Verhoeven’s films are wholly dedicated to a signature heightened theatricality, often to the point of camp, perversion, or repugnance. But in that exaggeration of genre, there is an eager exploration of the psychology behind why we crave such pure cinematic delights; to understand why we love what we’re seeing as much as we feel we should hate it. With Benedetta, Verhoeven’s love for subverting genre norms is married to one woman’s ultimate passion for her faith, and how that passion resulted in relationships and miracles that rejected centuries of religious dogma and only further deepened the mysteries of faith.

There’s an inherent performative nature to convent life, at least as depicted in Benedetta. Ruled over by their original Abbess (a deliciously strict Charlotte Rampling), the Theatine Sisters are wholly dedicated to the regimens of their secluded life. Without room for any earthly distractions, there seems to be a compulsion as to who can dedicate themselves to Christ the most. From her first day in the Convent, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is ahead of the pack. On her first night, a statue of the Virgin Mary collapses upon her yet leaves her unharmed, leaving Benedetta just enough room to nurse at the statue before she’s rescued by the astonished Sisterhood. Growing up, Benedetta’s possessed by Hollywoodized visions of a sword-slinging Christ who mows down evildoers, only for Benedetta to be rudely awakened mid-performance as if the Heavenly Father called “cut.” Behind the scenes of the Convent, the Sisterhood is motivated by financial gain as much as they are by their piety. Benedetta’s noble Father must pay to have his daughter moved to the top of a stack of applicants driven to take the habit — and any contribution to the Sisterhoods’ welfare is seen as further ensuring one’s place in the Heavenly Kingdom. Throughout Benedetta, the argument is clear: Piety is a profession, and one’s sanctified success is determined by how much one is willing to give themselves to God…via body, soul, image, and coffer.

What sets Benedetta in motion, however, is how the miracles she experiences lend Benedetta greater social status, both within the walls of the convent and in a greater social context ruled by archaic patriarchy. As Papal authorities descend upon Pescia to investigate Benedetta’s claims, theatricality becomes her greatest weapon. With a booming demonic voice and blood inexplicably pouring out of wounds in her hands and feet (and later her head, once that missing crown of thorns is pointed out to her), Benedetta openly states that to doubt her miracles is to doubt God himself. It’s one of many sequences in the film whose visceral emotional arcs go from 0 to 100 in the span of seconds. However, Verhoeven ingrains this heightened religious fervor so deeply in his pastoral Renaissance setting that it becomes the holiest genre hall pass in a historical biopic this year. Positioned as the religious authority of the region, this gatekeeping of God also grants the most powerful Sisters a social currency that would be denied these women in any other aspect of society. When they answer to the Heavenly Father alone, any other man in power (whether civil or religious) is an easy adversary to overcome.

In a pre-screening Q&A, Verhoeven discussed how earlier iterations of the script with a former writer on the project seemed at odds with their subject matter. Was this a film about the subversion of sexual norms, in sharp contrast with today’s society, or was this a film about sexual agency wielded to pursue and maintain an elusive grasp on power? As Benedetta’s professional trajectory reaches heavenly heights as the new Abbess of Pescia, one can argue these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive in the slightest. With canny miracles and fulfilled prophecies silencing the powerful men around her, Benedetta is seemingly safeguarded against any form of suspicion…allowing her to pursue a nascent relationship with Benedetta’s assigned caretaker, the free-spirited, decorum-smashing novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). This then-sacrilegious relationship is so intertwined with Benedetta’s ascendency to power that to consider one more crucial to Benedetta than another discounts how the love of Christ and the pleasures, demands, and sacrifices of Earthly living are so indelibly entwined in Convent life long before Benedetta entered it.

Loaded with sensual subversions and perversions of religious iconography, these sequences between Benedetta and Bartolomea have naturally become the fiery focal point of protests against Verhoeven’s film. From sheer curtains separating nude bodies to a sonorous meet-cute in a privy, it’s clear that Bartolomea’s lack of modesty or sanctity when it comes to convent life has one clear direction under Verhoeven’s guidance. A climactic sequence in more ways than one sees the Sisters fashion the mother of all instruments to aid in their time together — lifted from the historical record, to be fair, but realized here with such rebellious glee by Verhoeven and company. While Verhoeven’s hot-collared depiction of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s lovemaking could be seen as another objectifying example of the male gaze on LGBTQ+ subject matter, the Sisters’ acts themselves are not the sole point of provocation here. These “Immodest Acts” are just one example of sexual agency seized by these women at a time where their only options were either Convent life or child-rearing. Here, Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship becomes the ultimate expression of power and defiance — and Verhoeven likewise doesn’t shy away from how physically gratifying that expression is. At the same time, this defiance must still be handled with deft precision by the Sisters when it comes to Benedetta’s role within the Faith, as she faces pressure and exposure from other male political figureheads.

For all of its rejection of religious norms and celebration of sexual autonomy and rebellion, what’s most fascinating about Benedetta is how it equally champions the enduring mystery of Faith. Verhoeven, Efira, and the rest of the filmmaking team never provide a definitive explanation for Benedetta’s numerous miracles. While an easier explanation can point to their attempted debunking in the original historical trial, Verhoeven’s cinematic agnosticism feels like its own additional act of provocation. If such a miracle-inducing God exists in this world, what then of its subsequent veneration of Benedetta and the vilification of Church officials through stomach-churning blights of Black Death? Perhaps the true perversion of Benedetta isn’t in the acts of its central character, but in that of organized religion by those who wield power within it.

Benedetta had its Texas Premiere via a Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest on September 28th, 2021. A theatrical and VOD release from IFC Films is planned for December 3rd.

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