Friday, 26 November 2021


As much a companion piece to Total Recall as anything else in the Paul Verhoeven canon, Benedetta takes a similar tact to Schwarzenegger's Martian adventure when dealing with the truth, allowing delusion and outright fantasy to occupy the same, unbroken, narrative space as events that broadly align with historical testimony. If anything, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke - adapting Judith C Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy - have chipped away at the ecclesiastical excess surrounding the real-life Benedetta Carlini, organising waves of religious ecstasy around a reciprocal, romantic, relationship and a genuine desire for a style of local governance that works in opposition to the pustulous buffoons who hold power in 17th century Tuscany.

Verhoeven's Benedetta - much like his book Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait - seeks to define a human element that might otherwise be lost when examining booming religious fervour. Virginie Efira's Benedetta then isn't a wide-eyed innocent completely lost to her visions, she's a canny politician with a foresight either broadcast to her from heaven or, simply, originating from her middle-class upbringing and education. Taken to a convent as a child - Verhoeven insisting we see the financial transactions required for a wealthy landowner to secure their child a permanent position with this nunnery - Benedetta is immediately trapped beneath a collapsing statue of a Madonna bearing her breast to nurse Christ. Naturally, she takes comfort from this incident. The other children debate if they have witnessed a near miss or a genuinely supernatural episode.

As an adult Benedetta begins to have intense hallucinations that rack her body like epileptic fits. These night terrors are communicated to us as fantastical interludes in which the vulnerable nun is rescued from slithering predators or rampaging mercenaries by a bloodthirsty, equally ravenous, Christ. Men, regardless of their piety, are depicted as violent and ruinous. Even after communing with Jesus in his most vulnerable, scourged state leaves real, oozing, stigmata all over Benedetta's body. The insinuation throughout this section is that the intelligent, God-fearing, Benedetta is attempting to decode her own sexuality using the only language she has been taught - a faith defined by physical and emotional suffering. Like Sister Jeanne in Ken Russell's The Devils, Benedetta is trapped in a lifetime ruled by dangerous, hypocritical men who routinely batter their women into a cowed compliance. Unlike Vanessa Redgrave's lovelorn hunchback though, Benedetta does eke out a brief period of bliss, initiating a sexual relationship with Daphne Patakia's Bartolomea that - according to one blustery know-it-all at Benedetta's eventual trial - is so materially unthinkable as to be preposterous. 

No comments: