Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin
Distributor: Pathe Films
Runtime: 131 mins. Reviewed in Feb 2022
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: High impact sex scenes

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.

Director Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he has been courting controversy for more than 40 years. And this film, about a nun in 17th century Italy, with its issues of sexuality and power is no exception.

From a Catholic perspective, the film raises issues about the exercise of power in the church, issues of sexual orientation, the spiritualising of power and sexuality, and the realities of Catholic history that cannot be ignored. More recent history of sexual abuse, clerical sexual abuse especially, means that many of these issues have lately been discussed more explicitly, more critically, and more shamefacedly at times.

And this should be the case with Benedetta. As with all serious topics, there is no limit as to the ‘what’ can be presented in a film, any human issue, good or evil. Where the critical response comes is in the ‘how’ the issues are treated. Since one of the main issues here is sexuality, sexual intimacy between two of the sisters, it does get something of the Paul Verhoeven (remembering his Basic Instinct). Some scenes will be too explicit for potential audiences. On the other hand, many will see them as part of telling the story and involving the audience whether the audience be sympathetic or judgmental.

In fact, looking at the film as a period piece, Italy in the 17th century, the city of Pescia with a visit to Florence, it is a substantial historical film, the costumes and decor of the period, the architecture, the music, including that of the church. And we see the custom of young girls being dedicated to life in a convent from an early age, their growing up there, the sheltered life, the daily routines, the community, prayer, the role of the chaplain. To this extent, the film offers interesting observations. But, it is also more interesting in terms of the exercise of power in the church, the role of authority, the claims for the will of God and the question as to who it is that properly interprets God’s will – instead of the personal whims of the superior.

Benedetta (Efira), is a strong little girl, seemingly with some supernatural powers, but certainly has a vivid connection with the person of Jesus Christ – her imagination and contact with him visualised, on the cross, or as a knight in armour avenging Benedetta. She is confident, continually praying, interpreting Jesus’ will for the community. But she becomes emotionally tangled with a young woman who seeks asylum in the convent, away from her abusive father and brothers. She is illiterate, bewildered, but immediately finds sympathy with Benedetta to whom she is attracted in numerous ways, including sexually.

We are reminded of Benedetta’s sheltered upbringing, of the customs and moral perspectives of the period, and the effect that the young woman, Bartolomea, exercises – her domination and sexual experience from her past abuse.

While this is at the centre of the film, there are also issues of church authority, of the dominating role of men in the church. The abbess of the convent is played most effectively by Charlotte Rampling, a dedicated woman, shrewd and pragmatic, a woman of peace – until convent life is changed when Benedetto has weird dreams, experiences the stigmata, cuts her forehead to resemble the wounds of the crown of thorns – which leads to her being denounced as a fraud. But, in the meantime, the chaplain promotes her, the people sees her as a saint, and she is installed as the abbess and she herself begins to dominate the community, the town, always relying on her close connection with Jesus.

For those interested in ecclesiastical politics, there is a portrait of a papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), a worldly and dissolute man who wilfully exercises power, judging Benedetta, condemning her as a witch, his turning into a ruthless Inquisitor, the threat of her being burned at the stake.

It might be interesting to consider other films on convents in historical times and disturbances and questions of whether the disturbance is spiritual or psychological: Anglican nuns in India in Black Narcissus, issues of innocence and ignorance in Agnes of God. The most immediate comparison is with Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils, far more outlandish in its treatment of mass hysteria and askew spirituality, than is found here. But, The Devils is set more or less at the same time as Benedetta.

Secular audiences will find this an interesting addition to Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre. Religious audiences will find it a challenge in a topic which requires challenge and reflection.

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