A 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. She is assisted by a companion, and the relationship between the two women develops into a romantic love affair.
Paul Verhoeven has always liked to provoke throughout his filmmaking career, but in ‘Benedetta’, his latest, he may have just outdone himself. Loosely based on a true story, ‘Benedetta’ is a movie about faith, sexuality and the relationship between the two in 17th century Italy, focusing on a convent of nuns where the politics and power plays wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day political thriller. It primarily tells the story of Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira), a devout believer who joins the convent as a young child and gradually builds up more and more power, whilst at the same time developing a lesbian relationship with another nun.
It would be fair to say this is no ordinary period drama, and certainly no ordinary religious drama and it has generated controversy in all the right places. It provokes questions around sexual freedom and its relationship to faith, and I detected elements of the absurdity of religion, however I may be projecting there as someone who considers myself as an atheist. As well as her relationship with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), Benedetta also has visions of Jesus and believes/pretends he speaks through her, and this leads to her garnering great power within the convent. Efira is a radiant presence in the leading role and her outward confidence often masks what she is truly feeling – these visions suggest she maybe does believe that Jesus speaks through her, yet it becomes clear as time goes on that this is all an act. The time period is of course important to this – at this point in history it was far more natural for people to be taken in by false prophets, and even the nuncio (Lambert Wilson) is conflicted to a point. Perhaps Benedetta was ahead of her time in using manipulation for her own ends. I also liked Charlotte Rampling as the Abbess of the convent, an elderly nun who starts to suspect Benedetta isn’t all she makes herself out to be after initially being taken in.
The movie is quite slow in building up its narrative but that setup does lead to an absolutely cracking final act when all of the key plot points come together, with Verhoeven’s thematic points all crystallising as a result. In most other directors hands, ‘Benedetta’ would have been a boring film in a genre I have little time for, but with Verhoeven at the helm it is a really intriguing piece of work and certainly worth a watch, fan of period nun dramas or not!
Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel and Hervé Pierre