“Benedetta” offers satirically profane, stimulating visions of sanctity

Paul Verhoeven’s transgressive religious period piece screens at OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center on July 26.
In a convent's lamplit chambers, a nun in a habit (right) shows a young woman in a nightgown the bottom of a wood-carved Virgin Mary.
Benedetta (Virginie Efira, right) shows Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia, left) her sanding job on their wood-carved DIY Virgin Mary dildo.

Paul Verhoeven’s transgressive religious period piece screens at OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center on July 26.

After a string of American films in the late ’80s and ’90s, Benedetta (2021) is director Paul Verhoeven’s fourth film after returning to Europe. It’s based on the provocative non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy (1986), by Judith C. Brown, about an Italian nun, Sister Benedetta Carlini, in the 17th century. 

The film depicts Benedetta (Virginie Efira) suffering from sacred visions, which she claims are delivered from Christ himself. A few of these visions portray “Jesus” saving her from a gang of bloodthirsty men or a group of snakes, including one where she encounters Jesus on the cross. Jesus asks her to get naked with him—and, upon waking, she seems to suffer from stigmata.

Fans of Verhoeven’s earlier films will know his penchant for religious imagery (specifically, Christian) and themes in such films as The Fourth Man (1983) and the period piece Flesh + Blood (1985). Verhoeven himself has even said that his original Robocop (1987) is an American rendering of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not pushing the boundary quite that far, Benedetta returns to the religious ambiguity of The Fourth Man. Throughout the film, viewers aren’t sure if Benedetta’s abilities are genuine or fabricated. Are Benedetta’s visions real, or are they the hallucinations of a woman with mental illness? Does Benedetta have divine powers, or are they mere coincidence?

In a similar vein to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), Benedetta graphically depicts the corruption of the Catholic church through their torture of nuns by the hands of papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson). In The Devils, Sister Jeanne claims to be possessed by the Devil, and so the priests conduct various sadistic “tests” to prove she isn’t faking it. In Benedetta, the woman who sought shelter at the convent, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), is similarly tortured to impel a confession after her sexual relationship with Benedetta is discovered. This film, like Verhoeven’s fascistic satire of heedless allegiance, Starship Troopers (1997), revisits the dangers of willfully following the oppressive status quo.

Upon release in late 2021, Benedetta received criticism and boycotts from Catholic and Christian groups, which almost always signifies that something is worth seeing. If you have done something to offend a group called the American Society for Tradition, Family, and Property, you must be doing something right. In the past, Paul Verhoeven has faced criticism for his depictions of LGBTQ+ characters in Basic Instinct (1992); and, while I think those comments have some merit, I also think he is a talented director capable of creating films with many hues of colorful nuance, which are bound to incite thought-provoking discussions. Fans of movies like Showgirls (1995) will know that our guy, Paul, knows how to combine high camp with scenes that are deeply erotic without marring the value of either.

It’s a perfect fit for the OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center’s screening on Wednesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. (at 2701 International Lane, Suite 101). Their current film series, Q-Cinema, started in 2009 as “Q-Cinema International” with a focus on foreign LGBTQ+ titles accompanied by community talks afterwards. In 2017, the group was renamed “Q-Cinema,” as it grew to incorporate films and TV series from the US. According to Brian Maulana-Ponce, OutReach’s Media and IT Director, these movie nights have also evolved to include food beyond popcorn and snacks “so people could interact a little more before the screenings and have a light nosh.”

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