From the provocateur Paul Verhoeven, who once highlighted a blood thirsty robot cop corporation and had Sharon Stone briefly flash her genitalia, the latest film is “Benedetta,” loosely based on the life of a nun from a book by Judith C. Brown. This story is unapologetically confrontational and focuses on the zealotry of a nun in the 17th century.
Daring, pulpy, frenetic and anxious this is a percussive and riveting film.
Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is a young nun outside of Florence. She nearly died as a child. As a consequence, the family treats her as blessed and spiritually gifted. She enters a convent.
On her first morning Benedetta prays to Virgin Mary. The statue falls on her and she is pinned, unable to move. Rather than become upset, Benedetta becomes aroused and sucks on the statue’s breast. The scene echoes Bunuel’s “L’Age d’Or”. From that moment on, the residents of the convent know well that she is a strange one especially Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling).
The novice nun starts to have strange visions and sexual feelings for Jesus which Benedetta transfers to Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) and Bartolomea likes it. The young pair exchange kisses and more. Then Benedetta experiences Stigmata, bleeding profusely from the hands and feet, and very disturbing visions involving sexual snakes and pestilence where millions will die of pox.
The gradual unfolding coupled with a theatrical somber score is very entertaining and apprehensive, recalling the lurid gothic shockers on the printed page The Italian and The Monk by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, respectively.
Religion and unbridled sex are given equal meaning and import.
Suffering, pain and torment are frequent here, but as this is the Middle Ages, it all seems authentic.
There are scenes of pure fright when Benedetta snarls and shouts, be it possession by angel or demon we are never quite sure. Rather than a distraction however, it only adds to the mystery.
No matter. The real subversive element in the film is not Benedetta’s spasms of rage, but that she sees the act of forbidden sex as a vehicle to God.
Though there are outrageous shock moments here to be sure with gushes and gouts of blood, Benedetta is a genuine person and she gives weight to her pain.
In true gothic fashion, The Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) is the Catholic official that you’ll love to hate.
Full of bizarre detail akin to director Ken Russell and unabashed frankness, “Benedetta” is engrossing authentic and unflinching. Though it is jarring in passages like a tabloid from the apocalypse, it won’t fail to provoke, while the points of torment will surely cause you to reflect (if not genuflect) after the screen fades into darkness. Verhoeven remains one of the most uncompromising and intriguing directors.
Write Ian at email@example.com