Film review: Benedetta is based on the true story of a 17th-century lesbian nun

Campy comedy or Christian theology? In Paul Verhoeven’s hands it’s a bit of both

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It can be instructive to note how our language sometimes uses the same word for different purposes. Take “ecstasy,” which can be applied to both religious experiences and sexual ones. Ditto “rapture.”


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Then there’s “camp,” which can refer to a place of instruction (Bible camp), a doctrine of belief (pro-Christian camp) or artistic exaggeration (campy comedies). Director Paul Verhoeven seems to be going for all of the above in his newest film, Benedetta , loosely based on the scholarly work Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy , by Judith C. Brown.

Brown’s work examines the case of Benedetta Carlini, abbess of a convent in Pescia, Italy, in the early 1600s, who claimed to have miraculous visions but was also in a playful sexual relationship with another nun. Verhoeven, adapting the work with David Birke (the two also worked together on the director’s last film, Elle ), takes more than a few liberties with the story, resulting in an uneven but enjoyable pastiche that at times borders on comedy.


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Belgian actor Virginie Efira stars as Benedetta . (Despite the Italian setting, the film is in French with English subtitles.) She is delivered to the convent at the age of nine by her father, who tries to haggle down the dowry with the argument that she’s been singled out by God. The stern, cynical Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) isn’t having any of that.

Many years later, the now twentysomething Benedetta agrees to look after a young novitiate, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Whether she’s truly interested in serving Christ, or merely fleeing an abusive family, the newcomer quickly develops a physical closeness with Benedetta.

Meanwhile, Benedetta has been troubled by weird dreams. In some of them, a character I can only describe as Sexy Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié) implores her to marry him. These are portrayed as truthful visions, though whether divine or psychological remains, in the 21st century as in the 17th, a matter of debate.


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But when Benedetta starts speaking aloud in God’s voice, and showing signs of stigmata on her wrists and ankles, the Reverend Mother and her own adult daughter suspect a ruse. It doesn’t help that some of the young nun’s pronouncements involve very precise orders, all under the guise of “Jesus said so.”

Verhoeven does a good job navigating the choppy waters of belief, reason and superstition – Christians 400 years ago may not have had the benefit of the Enlightenment, but they were politically savvy and hardly stupid. Caught in the middle of the convent’s warring factions is papal envoy Alfonso (Lambert Wilson), eager to please everyone, God included.

You do have to be ready for the odd swerve into camp (see definition three above), as when a papal edict is cut short by a nun who mashes the convent’s organ keyboard to create a convenient horror-movie sound effect, 300 years before they started showing up in movies. On the other hand, there are some truly disturbing scenes of torture. But the final product is more thought-provoking than risible. And amen to that.

Benedetta opens Dec. 3 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

3.5 stars out of 5



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