Set in 17th century Italy, and based on real people and events, writer/director Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature, Benedetta, is the story of a nun from a wealthy family (Virginie Efira) who experiences vivid, and highly erotic, religious visions. After a pretty young novice named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives at the convent, Benedetta’s visions become more intense and attract the attention of local religious leaders – threatening the sexual and romantic relationship that is beginning to blossom between the women.
Verhoeven’s work is polarizing, to put it mildly. Many of his best-known films, such as Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Elle, deal frankly with themes of gender, violence, and sex – often feature explicit nudity and sexual violence. Though Showgirls, a flop with audiences and critics alike upon its initial release in 1995, has enjoyed a post-#metoo reassessment, his work is still frequently regarded as campy, misguidedly erotic, silly, or even just plain bad, depending on who you ask. But few contemporary filmmakers know how to hold an audience’s attention so raptly with such consistency. Say what you will about Verhoeven, at least he’s never boring.
Explicit sex scenes have always been controversial, with many arguing that they are unnecessary, gratuitous, or even outright exploitative. When done thoughtfully, however, sex can play an important role in characterization and thematic development. Benedetta is a prime example of a film that employs sex not just because it is hot, but because these moments of intimacy reveal important truths about characters and their relationships. Not all the sex in Benedetta is meant to turn the viewer on or be comfortable to watch. In fact, how we feel about these scenes changes over the course of the film as the characters themselves evolve. This is not merely voyeurism for its own sake (though I would argue that voyeurism has its own artistic merits as well), but, instead, it is central to the film’s exploration of the intersections of desire, pain, control, and belief.
For a film that features such explicit scenes of sex and violence, Benedetta is also carefully composed and demonstrates considerable restraint, opting to show instead of tell at every opportunity. Efira and Patakia are exceptional as Benedetta and Bartolomea, and their chemistry carries the film through its more outrageous moments. Neither woman is entirely sympathetic, but that hardly matters. Benedetta places us so firmly in its protagonist’s world and point-of-view that we don’t need to agree with her to understand her motivations. From the opening scene, in which a young Benedetta saves her family from robbers through the power of prayer, to the harsh conditions of the convent that are rendered beautifully by Jeanne Lapoirie’s sensuous cinematography, we see late renaissance Catholicism through Benedetta’s eyes. Her perspective is simultaneously flawed, privileged, unreliable, rebellious, fantastic, and deeply self-centered. The end result is fascinating and entertaining in equal measure. By centring Benedetta’s point-of-view completely, Verhoeven also creates a film that feels more ironic (and, dare I say it, intellectual?) than objectifying.
Benedetta, like much of the Verhoeven’s oeuvre, explores complex issues of desire, power, and sex. This isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone (maybe think twice before taking your grandmother to see it for Christmas), but it is one that demands a response, whether positive or negative, and insists upon the viewer’s undivided attention. What is perhaps most fascinating is how comfortable it is occupying the space between extremes: the tipping point between excess and reservation, or the blurry line between chaste religious purity and the passionate fever of faith.
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