Benedetta  (18) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Paul Verhoeven, France/Belgium/Netherlands, 2021, 132 mins, in French and Latin

Cast:  Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling

Review by Carol Allen

Paul Verhoeven’s film is inspired by a report found in the archives of Florence of the trial for blasphemy and lesbianism of Benedetta, a young nun, which took place in the early 17th century.  

It is a good story, strong in theme to attract Verhoeven’s attention and well told by the director. And the two young actresses in the leads are very convincing 

Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) joins the convent in Renaissance Tuscany as a child.  A fervent believer, she seemed to have a hot line to the Virgin Mary, who appears to her in visions and seems to help the young girl out with the odd miracle.  When she becomes a teenager, as a bride of Christ her visions change their focus to Jesus.   She is very devout. 

Then a young girl Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), fleeing from her violent and sexually abusive father and brother is taken into the convent.   The two women become close and Bartolomea introduces the pious Benedetta to the idea and experience that the flesh is not for mortification but for pleasure. 

Through Benedetta’s visions of Jesus and at the height of the plague which is sweeping the country and isolating the community, the couple gradually take over the ruling of the convent, ousting the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) and driving her daughter, who sees through their deception, to her death.  But when they are “outed” by the Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), a senior cleric who appears to have his own female companion on the side, the full weight of the church comes into play against the couple.

The story raises interesting questions about religion and power.  We are also never sure whether Benedetta is a total fraud or is genuinely devout and believes in her visions.  And as the story encompasses a lesbian love affair and this is a Paul Verhoeven film, we can expect some explicit scenes.

But unlike say Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Colour, where the lesbian scenes looked like the male director’s pornographic fantasies, these are no more explicit than in a film about a heterosexual relationship and are vital to the story. 

 The use of a small statue of the Virgin might raise a few eyebrows however and could even perhaps cause a similar storm to Ken Russell’s controversial The Devils many years ago.   While the torture instrument used on Bartolomea looks disturbingly like the one contemporary doctors use on women for a smear test! 

It is also good after her spit and a cough role recently in Dune to see Charlotte Rampling in a meatier part as the cost conscious abbess, who runs the convent like a business, making sure the brides of Christ or their parents come up with the dowry money.