If the movie gods were to choose any filmmaker alive to adapt Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Paul Verhoeven probably would have eagerly pushed that person down a set of stairs to get his hands on this material, because it’s tailor-made to suit his risqué sensibilities.
Hence, the Dutch auteur’s Benedetta (★★☆☆☆) might not be the most divinely right adaptation of Brown’s account of real-life 17th-century Sister Benedetta Carlini, but it is exactly the overheated, mystic lesbian nun thriller that viewers might expect from the man behind Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
Filled with sharp objects and sharper glances, lurid violence, and lots of slow undressing, the film isn’t as single-mindedly effective as Instinct, nor as uproariously camp as Showgirls. It’s handsomely mounted, though, shot by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie with painterly attention to the shadowy candlelit cells and sunlit chapels of the Tuscan convent where Benedetta first arrives as a young girl (Elena Plonka).
Virginie Efira gives a commanding performance as adult Benedetta, who experiences an erotic and spiritual awakening at 23, brought on by her increasingly vivid visions of Jesus Christ (Jonathan Couzinié), and by the arrival at the convent of a new novice, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia).
Inspired by her genderqueer Christ warrior-defender, Benedetta believes she’s been chosen to protect the convent from the plague devastating the populace beyond the village walls. Revealing her hands and feet pierced by bloody stigmata, she ascends in the order — though she doesn’t convince the convent’s stony abbess, Sister Felicita, played with rueful wit by Charlotte Rampling.
Carrying all the gravitas she likewise brought to Dune, Rampling might be acting in a more serious religious period drama, but one that at least complements the soft-core sizzle Verhoeven brings to the lesbian love story.
The film, written by Verhoeven and David Birke, poses Benedetta’s metaphysical tale neither as miracle nor divine mystery. Those in power who believe her do so for their own benefit, and those who wish to debunk her find ample evidence to sow seeds of doubt.
Yet the movie doesn’t commit to showing Benedetta’s perspective on the matter, often offering only second-hand descriptions of acts that could easily be depicted to prove her a liar. But Verhoeven keeps the camera, and thus the audience, removed from Benedetta’s complete and total confidence.
We are, however, granted a voyeuristic peek behind the curtain with her and Bartolomea, the imagery framed more to titillate than to engender any powerful identification with their feelings. That arch sense of remove is never more pronounced, nor more queasy, than during a scene of implied torture and degradation late in the film, suggesting centuries of systematic cruelty and pain inflicted by men on women’s bodies.
But whose side is Verhoeven on now? The camera doesn’t reveal all, but taken as a whole, the filmmaker’s oeuvre offers more answers than he might admit. And whether Benedetta was a saint or a scammer, she definitely was a sexual outlaw, who, according to this film, practically begged to be punished.
Benedetta is not rated and is playing at theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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