Jesus Christ, Paul Verhoeven! Lesbian Nuns and Racy Convent Sex Make ‘Benedetta’ the Talk of Cannes


Variety 09 July, 2021 - 02:59pm 29 views

Cannes 2021: BENEDETTA Review

That Shelf 09 July, 2021 - 05:27pm

‘Benedetta’: Cannes Review

Screen International 09 July, 2021 - 05:27pm

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Paul Verhoeven returns to Cannes Competition with this unsubtle, provocative tale of a 17th-century nun.

Any residual doubts that 82-year-old filmmaker Paul Verhoeven might have lost his taste for provocation are laid impiously to rest in Benedetta, a lurid (albeit ravishingly shot) tale of carnal and religious ecstasy in which we witness, among other visions, a young abbess being pleasured by a dildo carved from a statue of the Virgin Mary

Encounters are both explicit and uncomfortable in the male gaze with which they are staged and framed

But the real issue is not the glee with which the director invites censure and controversy. It’s that this highly-anticipated, long-completed work — which postponed its debut until it could enjoy the embrace of Cannes’ first physical festival in two years — is a major step back from Verhoeven’s last feature and previous competition contender Elle, which wowed the Croisette in 2016.

Both centre on a strong, controlling, unpredictable female character, but Elle was both in-your-face and richly subtle, partly thanks to a magnificently layered performance by Isabelle Hupert. Benedetta aspires to subtlety in its underlying theme of how a woman who was not of high birth could achieve power and influence in a world that was controlled by men on earth, and the Father and Son in heaven. Yet it is undermined too often by a jaded vision of the early 17th century that seems influenced by cinematic perceptions of the Middle Ages. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal looms large in Verhoeven’s toolbox (composer Anne Dudley even incorporates that film’s ‘Dies Irae’ chant in her score), but we can’t help being reminded too, in scenes set during a plague outbreak, of the ‘bring out your dead!’ clichés of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In 1986, historian Judith C Brown published a book called ‘Immodest Acts’, based on a series of papers she had uncovered in the state archive in Florence while researching an entirely different topic. They were the records of a series of inquests held by church authorities between 1619 and 1623 to determine whether Benedetta Carlini, the young abbess of a provincial Tuscan convent, was a true visionary, as she claimed. It’s this book, and the explicit accounts it contains of Benedetta’s sexual affair with a younger nun, that provides the ‘inspiration’, as an opening credit tells us, for a film that was scripted by Verhoeven with his Elle co-writer David Birke.

Virginie Efira, who filled a key supporting role in Elle, plays Benedetta, a nun from a well-to-do merchant family. A prologue shows her as a much younger girl being brought to this convent in the Tuscan town of Pescia by her parents – together with the wooden statuette of the Virgin that will feature so prominently later. Both here and in the later scenes, it’s made clear that money and influence are as important as piety and prayer in the running of this religious institution.

Charlotte Rampling’s Sister Felicita – an ironic name for this sharp, dour woman – haggles with Benedetta’s merchant father over the price of the ‘convent dowry’ which all aspiring novices are required to pay. When Benedetta begins to experience divine visions and manifest the bleeding wounds of the stigmata, the local provost, Pescia’s highest-ranking churchman, overrides Sister Felicita’s scepticism and eventually appoints Benedetta as abbess in her place, viewing the miracle-working nun as a fast-track route to promotion. A papal nuncio played by Lambert Wilson – who, like Rampling, has a lot of fun with his role – is equally worldly, first viewed being waited on by a servant whose pregnancy we need no advance powers of deduction to attribute to him.

Sexual desire, self-denial and a large dose of calculation mingle in Benedetta’s increasingly raucous visionary fits – which are translated on-screen, with a level of satire it’s difficult to gauge, in CGI-heavy sequences in which Christ with his flock, hissing serpents and brigand rapists mingle. By this time, the new abbess has fallen for the attractions of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a wild, unschooled novice from peasant stock with a simple, uncomplicated sexual drive. Their encounters are both explicit and uncomfortable in the male gaze through which they are staged and framed – which is not to slight the contribution of DoP Jeanne Lapoirie, who works impressively with candlelight and sun through high church windows.

It’s the tone that’s off here, as it is throughout a film which seems to wink at what it perhaps wants us to see as irony – its soft porn tropes like bondage and flagellation, its over-saturated sci-fi view of a comet’s passing, its horror-influenced vision of the plague – while keeping both eyes firmly open.

Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt, Jerome Seydoux

Screenplay: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, inspired by Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts

Main cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin

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Cannes Review: Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Benedetta’

Deadline 09 July, 2021 - 03:36pm

Ever the bad boy even into his 80s, director Paul Verhoeven stirs the pot and turns the heat up to the boiling point in Benedetta, a medieval brew of religious fervor, illicit lesbian sex in a convent, Catholic church politics and — to incidentally add a contemporaneous touch — a plague sweeping the land. Shot three summers ago in Tuscany and delayed in its Cannes Film Festival premiere by a year due to the 2020 edition’s cancellation, the film, like all the director’s work, is wild, intelligent, pulsating, provocative and vibrantly alive. Cecil B. DeMille would be outraged, while Ken Russell would be wildly jealous.

Verhoeven followers will recall that, in contrast to his ribald reputation, he came out with a scholarly book in 2008 called Jesus Of Nazareth, which was generally praised as a deeply researched and intelligent investigation in Jesus’ life and thoughts. When he decided not to pursue that as a film, he turned his attention to this project, which is based on a 1986 non-fiction book by Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy.

Teaming up again with screenwriter David Birke, who wrote the director’s terrific previous film, Elle, Verhoeven once again pushes all the buttons that will titillate, provoke, excite, offend and — a quality he’s maintained throughout the decades — mix impudent and outrageous conceits with serious smarts.

Set in Tuscany in the late 1600s (it was shot mostly in the area of Montepulciano), the film at once establishes that this is not going to be a straightlaced, reverent look at convent life. The nunnery is overseen by the aging Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) and it’s an estimable, exclusive establishment that only admits three new postulants per year. Take that, Smith and Barnard.

“Your biggest enemy is your body,” the abbess insists to her flock, a position paired with a parallel edict: “Intelligence can be dangerous.”

One young woman who will clearly have problems with this attitude is Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira), whose curiosity and overall bright disposition seems at odds with her position at the nunnery, even if her faith is unquestioned. The basics of convent life are amply portrayed in instructive fashion, including various details about which you might have been curious but afraid to seem impertinent. Verhoeven has anticipated your interest.

When another postulant arrives, one to be called Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), trouble looks to follow. She speaks in a vulgar way and introduces untoward elements into convent life that before long triggers behavior the likes of which Catholic kids might have long joked or imagined but which, for sure, have never been enacted in anything resembling a mainstream movie.

To be clear, there’s sex, and plenty of it. Some of it may go over the top—or under the bottom — and there are bits that will no doubt appear over the line and perhaps exploitative. Nudity abounds, but then it wouldn’t be a Verhoeven film without it. At the same time, however, the director has inhabited this uninhibited realm for a long time and well knows how to mix the serious and provocative with humor and self-conscious outrageousness. When we see a sex toy one of nuns has hidden away, the whole audience in Cannes laughed with, not at, Verhoeven’s audacity.

Still, this is serious stuff at heart, a story of church politics as much as anything, and the issues at hand become grave indeed with the arrival of both the plague and Le Nonce (Lambert Wilson), a high church mucky-muck who intends to clean house of the dirty doings said to have taken place at the nunnery. Church doctrine and scriptural readings can always be twisted to suit the occasion and Le Nonce is a skillful practitioner of interpreting Biblical edicts for his own purposes.

But then comes the plague, which exempts no class or hierarchy from its devastation. Much as the filmmakers might have been frustrated over the past two years at the film not being released, the alarming plague footage in the final act will play with far greater resonance to viewers all over the world in the wake of the Covid virus. Inadvertently and unfortunately for us all, Benedetta has very much become a film of this moment.

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Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Benedetta’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

Hollywood Reporter 09 July, 2021 - 01:37pm

The provocateur returns to competition with this French-language drama, based on a true story about a 17th-century nun who was chastised for her religious visions and lesbian affairs.

By Jordan Mintzer

It’s long been known that Paul Verhoeven, the man behind such taboo-breaking movies as Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Elle, has been fascinated by the life of Jesus Christ.

He was once a member of the highbrow Jesus Seminar, founded by American biblical scholar Robert Funk, and at some point he was supposed to make a film called Jesus: The Man before the project wound up falling through. He even co-authored a book, Jesus of Nazareth, which was published in 2007 and translated into several languages.

But just because Verhoeven is a scholar, of sorts, on the teachings of Christianity, it doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to challenge them — or more like torture and blaspheme until they’re begging for mercy — in his latest boundary-pushing drama, Benedetta.

It may all seem a bit ludicrous and it’s definitely way over-the-top, but Verhoeven’s movies have always bordered on camp because they tend to function as satires, tackling such thorny issues as American hegemony (Starship Troopers), colonization (Total Recall) and the police state (RoboCop). Benedetta, with its twisted take on the Catholic faith and the powers-that-be who reigned over it in Renaissance Italy, is no exception to the rule.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the film won’t infuriate certain viewers, or perhaps a bunch of them, with its scenes of full-frontal nudity and eroticism, most of them involving women. Some people are sure to find it all rather offensive, and the movie’s prospects at the U.S. box office are about as dim as the candle-lit cells in Benedetta’s convent.

But there’s also a method to Verhoeven’s madness (or is that misogyny?), and like Elle or Showgirls or even Basic Instinct, Benedetta is about a woman clawing her way to power in a male-dominated world, gradually finding her own voice and then achieving emancipation. The unlikely trajectory of Benedetta Carlini is certainly viewed through a male gaze, and a shameless one at that, and yet to consider this tale of faith and acumen triumphing over false virtue as a mere case of exploitation is to write it off too easily.

Benedetta is fearlessly portrayed by Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who, after a stint on French variety shows and in a handful of comedies, has proved to be a more serious screen presence in recent efforts like Justine Triet’s Sibyl and Anne Fontaine’s Night Shift.

Following a prologue, where we see young Benedetta committed by her noble parents to a convent of Theatine nuns presided over by the stodgy Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), we pick up her story 18 years later. At that point, she’s grown into a respected member of the cloister, albeit one who experiences troubling visions of Jesus that Verhoeven shoots like full-fledged Hollywood action sequences, doubling down on the violence and gore as if to highlight how R-rated the Bible can be.

Whether or not these visions are actually real keeps us guessing throughout the movie, and the screenplay (co-written by Elle scribe David Birke) asks us to question Benedetta’s sincerity as she faces challenges to both her beliefs and her position at the convent.

And yet the larger question posed by Verhoeven is what such sincerity really means at a time, and in a place, where women had very little agency — where being a nun, which meant giving up carnal desires and limited social freedoms, was one of the only ways to achieve any sort of liberty, even if it meant within the confines of a holy prison.

Early on we learn that many of Benedetta’s sisters come from backgrounds of adversity: one was born Jewish, and, after suffering a life of anti-Semitism, is now slowly dying from breast cancer; another is a prostitute; and then there’s the new arrival, Bartolomea (Belgian newcomer Daphné Patakia), who was raped by her father and brothers until running off to the convent, where Felicita agrees to take her in for a fee. (Verhoeven points out how savvy the abbess can be when it comes to obtaining financing for her nunnery).

From the moment she shows up, there’s clearly an animal attraction between the young, not-so-innocent and clearly traumatized Bartolomea and the older, conflicted Benedetta. In typically subversive Verhoeven fashion, one of the first scenes where they share any intimacy involves them defecating together in the cloister toilets, sound effects included. Soon, Bartolomea is making passes at Benedetta, and every time she does so the latter experiences another vision, as if the prospect of sexual ecstasy brings her closer to Christ — or else reminds her of her vows to remain both pious and chaste.

“Your worst enemy is your body,” a nun had warned Benedetta early on, and a significant portion of the film involves her resisting, and eventually overcoming, that lesson, with Bartolomea helping her along. As the two get close to committing the act, stigmata miracoulsly appear on Benedetta’s hands, feet and forehead, indicating that she may be some kind of saint. Whether that’s true or not, it allows her to replace Felicita at the top of the cloister hierarchy, which means she gets to have her very own private bedroom.

Soon enough the two sisters are sleeping together in there, and Verhoeven hardly shies away from what occurs between the sheets. Rather, he seems hell-bent (sorry) on capturing Benedetta’s burgeoning sexuality at the hands of Bartolomea, showing how vital it is for her — how having an orgasm is a veritable moment of self-discovery. Again, it’s easy to dismiss this as a case of the Dutch director getting his rocks off behind the camera, but there’s little doubt that for Benedetta, the sex, even with the Virgin Mary dildo, is filled with meaning.

From then on, things begin to crumble, with Felicita taking off to Florence to alert the nuncio (Lambert Wilson) about Benedetta’s false claims of saintliness and her illicit relationship with Bartolomea. When she gets there, the bubonic plague has already riddled the city, and the nuncio proves himself to be a cartoonish church official who’s only concerned with maintaining power and dominating all the women around him.

At over two hours, the narrative can feel a bit clunky in places, although Verhoeven throws in a few funny lines and enough action to keep Benedetta from descending into a long-winded sacrilegious exposé. Even if all of the dialogue is in French, there’s something very Hollywoodish about the way he and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM) have staged scenes for maximum impact in all the tight settings, keeping the pace fresh enough.

By the time Benedetta takes her stand against the papal authorities in the film’s big closing set piece, there are few nuns left to support her — the same way that many viewers may have abandoned the movie by then, laughing it off as silly exploitative garbage. We may never know if Benedetta was sincere about her visions in the end, just as it’s impossible to judge how sincere Verhoeven is when he’s indulging in the kind of erotic fantasies that have made him famous. The beauty of Benedetta is that it never provides a straightforward answer to all of our questions, leaving it up to us to decide if we truly believe or not.

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