REVIEW: Benedetta [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 131 minutes
    Release Date: July 9th, 2021 (France) / December 3rd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Pathé / IFC Films
    Director(s): Paul Verhoeven
    Writer(s): David Birke & Paul Verhoeven / Judith C. Brown (book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Studies in the History of Sexuality))

We’re all entitled to a sin.

Even as a child, Benedetta Carlini (Elena Plonka) believed herself protected by Jesus. As director Paul Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke portray it, her arrival to the convent in Pescia was one dripping in entitlement. She belonged there. It was her destiny. And we believe it because her conviction is immovable thanks to a steady stream of miracles occurring whenever anyone doubts her bond with God. Where did that confidence come from? Was this desire to be Jesus’ bride her own? Was it something instilled in her by her wealthy yet cheap father? Was it merely the way in which her madness manifested to allow for her to accept its hold? It’s not like insanity and faith are ever too far apart. To believe without evidence is absurd.

Based on the book Immodest Acts by Judith C. Brown, Benedetta soon fast-forwards eighteen years to find Sister Benedetta (now played by Virginie Efira) has lost none of that belief. Not only does she believe herself a conduit of God, but she begins to hallucinate Jesus’ presence as well. When performing in a play, she dreams that she’s in a field where he beckons her closer. Her feet can be seen moving despite her character being dead, the scenario unfolding in her mind taking over her body as though she were transported to another world. You cannot blame the abbess (Charlotte Rampling‘s Sister Felicita) for straddling the fence as far as keeping it quiet to both avoid God’s wrath for calling Benedetta a blasphemer and ridicule for not.

Everything changes when a newcomer runs into Benedetta’s arms, crying for salvation. Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) has been abused by her father and sought escape through the abbey’s doors. Benedetta takes it upon herself to save this poor girl and serve as an example for her transition towards piety. She’s unsure, however, about how to do so once Bartolomea reciprocates her kindness with a kiss. Should Benedetta report the advance and risk her being thrown out? Or should she keep the secret and find the strength to dole out punishment herself? It’s the classic flirtation wherein you overcompensate for your feelings by feigning disgust and the confusion brings about a new sort of vision. When told God rewards us for our pain and not others, Benedetta starts punishing herself.

Or is it God? Screaming fits of torture ring out in the night only to be quelled by opium. Jesus is no longer supplying open arms as a one-eyed figure has taken his place for vengeful acts of violence while under the impression that Benedetta’s body would be his reward. This young woman’s burgeoning sexuality is playing tricks with her mind by conflating desire with duty and the conflict only grows more volatile when Bartolomea volunteers to sleep in her room to protect her from the night terrors. Fits become yearning. Modesty disappears under the auspices of evidence. (“Jesus has replaced my heart with one too big for my chest. Feel my breast as proof.”) And then Benedetta’s struggles thrust her over the edge via stigmata.

It’s a shame that Benedetta has been reduced to “the lesbian nun film” by so many because there’s a lot of interesting ideas about faith, politics, and the church beneath such exploitative labels. The simple fact of Benedetta needing to use Jesus to interpret her feelings is a treatise on the damage conservative religion has on marginalized communities denounced as sinners and Hell-bound. She doesn’t have any other tools to process what’s happening beyond her indoctrination and she’s smart enough to realize (subconsciously or not) how to use the tools she does have to her advantage. Piousness is all about perception after all. If love can be misconstrued as sin, so too can sin be repackaged as love. If her actions help those in power, they’ll agree.

With every “believer” like wannabe-Bishop Alfonso Cecchi (Olivier Rabourdin) comes an enemy like the abbess’ daughter (Louise Chevillotte‘s Christina). Because he has power and she doesn’t, however, truth holds no value against communal understanding. Benedetta being a liar therefore has no bearing if nobody with an authoritative voice calls her one. And the more she becomes emboldened by the aftermath of her visions and miracles (as she has been since childhood), the more her mind creates. Unless, of course, God is possessing her to do these things—using her physical presence to communicate His wishes. If Benedetta promises something that’s already happening as proof of divinity, its continuance is by default divine. If an accused witch sinks and drowns, she’s absolved of all guilt. But she’s still dead.

This is the maliciously patriarchal system by which all these women must adhere under a church that demands men be given full control. And the Nonce Alfonso (Lambert Wilson) is a huge proponent of ensuring as much when he arrives in Pescia to hold Benedetta accountable for what she’s done considering accusations have been made. Not only are nuns saying she’s faked her visions and stigmata, but some say they’ve seen her and Bartolomea engaged in sexual acts (the film is not as salacious as you may have heard unless you’re a person of faith who may take offense to a statue of the Virgin Mary being used as a dildo). Alfonso threatens and inflicts torture not to discover truth, but to confirm what he’s already judged himself.

Verhoeven does well to hold off transparency so that we can’t necessarily know if Benedetta is telling the truth, possessed by a demon, completely crazy, or willfully deceitful. The assumption is that Bartolomea will get her to finally admit everything, but what if there’s nothing to admit? Why should the church believe so vehemently in Jesus’ miracles yet refuse to do the same for Benedetta (Efira magnificently toes the line between manipulative and innocent)? Because she sought pleasure? Because she sought God’s love through another woman? What she says is no stranger than what’s written in the Bible yet her being a woman guarantees it always will be. The most devout among them is labeled a pariah and the only person who knows the truth watches from Heaven.

[1] Isabelle Fuhrman as ‘Alex Dall’ in Lauren Hadaway’s THE NOVICE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Amy Forsyth as ‘Jamie Brill’ and Isabelle Fuhrman as ‘Alex Dall’ in Lauren Hadaway’s THE NOVICE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Isabelle Fuhrman as ‘Alex Dall’ in Lauren Hadaway’s THE NOVICE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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