Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
France/Belgium/Netherlands, 2021. SBS Productions, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Topkapi Films, Belga Productions, Belga Films Fund, Canal+, Centre National du Cinéma, Cine+, Cinémage 13, Cofimage 30, Cofinova 15, France Televisions, Indéfilms 7, Netherland Filmfund, Palatine Etoile 16, Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Screenplay by David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, screenplay collaboration with Pascal Bonitzer, based on the book by Judith C. Brown. Cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie. Produced by Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt, Jerome Seydoux. Music by Anne Dudley. Production Design by Katia Wyszkop. Costume Design by Pierre-Jean Larroque. Film Editing by Job ter Burg.
A little girl is brought to a monastery in the Tuscan city of Pescia, filled to the brim with the belief in herself as a conduit through which the power of the Virgin Mary flows. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is raised behind the abbey’s protective walls and her beliefs never leave her, frequently the subject of powerful and strange near-death occurrences from which she walks away without a scratch, while often lost in violent visions that see her communing with Jesus Christ in scenes of heroic near-martyrdom. Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a poor girl being abused by her father, runs into the monastery and begs for sanctuary and through Benedetta’s interference it is granted, made a novitiate despite having no interest in the spiritual, and this opposite nature to Benedetta’s supernatural obsessions creates a spark between them that sees Benedetta seized by a different power, that of fleshly desire.
The power of her attraction to Bartolomea only makes Bendetta’s reveries with Jesus that much more dramatic, she frequently wakes up from nightmares with blood-curdling screams, and then after the appearance of that Catholic classic, the stigmata, her godly magic is subjected to scrutiny by the powers above her. The abbot and male priests are convinced that she is truly a holy vessel and appoint her the new abbess of the monastery, while the former abbess whom she unseats, Sister Felicita (a perfectly cast Charlotte Rampling) and fellow nun Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte) see through her miracles as her own manipulations.
Director Paul Verhoeven, ever the loveable misanthrope, isn’t here to condemn religion or exploit hot lesbian sex with this film, even though he does plenty of both, but rather would like us all to take a good look at ourselves and admit our sensual, mortal limits. Religious belief is always subject to the culture in which it is practiced, this is a time when the existence of God wasn’t the personal spiritual journey that it is today but was accepted as an everyday reality; the Christ in Bendetta’s visions is basically a chivalrous knight who, because he is a vision, will never disappoint her and, because she has no reason to doubt his existence, is an image that only grows more potent in her mind with her increasing sense of her charismatic power over others (and, more specifically, which she becomes more obsessed with the more she wrestles with her lustful feelings for Bartolomea). Sister Felicita warns the morally astute Christina that messing with the male-dominated power game of the church will only bring her woes, and what Benedetta accomplishes, which Verhoeven admires with his tongue, as always, hovering somewhere in his cheek, is a circumvention of this power structure that is not threatened until her personal sexual proclivities are exposed to the scrutiny of male political ambition.
Benedetta’s female nemeses and a Florentine papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson) try to expose her as a hypocrite but cannot do so because she really does believe that she is hearing directly from God (even when shown the physical objects that she uses to perform her “miracles”), and when they try to condemn her sins of the flesh with Bartolomea, she responds with a confident belief that all her acts, including those of love, are the will of God. The sensual being that we are all so ashamed of is something that we always hope to disguise in the noble if dissatisfying pursuit of intellectual thought (as Bendetta’s enemies do) and in supernatural faith (as Benedetta and the monks do), but power is a zero sum game in this film, it’s wielded cruelly by religion and gender but all you need is one conveniently-timed plague to remind us that we are all just fiddling our time away in denial of our own mortality.
Verhoeven maintains his delicious, career-long habit of a perfect balance between sublimely ridiculous and gruesomely serious, you can giggle all you like at the Virgin Mary dildo because whatever vulnerabilities his characters are subject to are those of us all, and the fantasy character in her fairy tale dreams are an escape that we all give a great deal of our emotional time to. Ofira delivers an unshakeable performance in the lead, her scenes speaking as if Christ is bellowing from within her body are outrageous in the most wonderful way, marred only by her having a very modern appearance (particularly her hair) that, whether intentionally or no, gives her sex scenes something of a false Playboy sheen that doesn’t match up to the rebellious, grimy tone of the rest of the film. As is often the case with this great filmmaker, though, the polemics of his work, while strongly stated, never override his remarkable ability to tell a captivating story and keep a film moving along with a great deal of strength.
Cannes Film Festival: In Competition