Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy gets the cinematic treatment from Dutch cinematic auteur Paul Verhoeven who manages to evoke as much provocative gusto as the original literary title suggests. Benedetta sees Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke transport us to the 17th Century Tuscany for this tale of the infamous abbess Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) who provoked scandal in the Catholic Church.
Benedetta Carlini arrives in a small Tuscan convent, convinced she has visions from heaven from a young age. Benedetta’s apparent visions bring wonder and excitement to some of the Church, yet suspicion and unease from others including Reverend Mother Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). The arrival of wayward soul Sister Bartolemea (Daphne Patakia) prompts further suspicion and scandal as she and Benedetta embark on a salacious romance behind closed doors.
From the film’s earliest moments, the ambiguity surrounding Benedetta’s ‘gifts’ are suggested – as her family are attacked by lewd soldiers Benedetta abilities intervene (the scene conjures up familiarity to Verhoeven’s earlier work such as Flesh + Blood). Whether the intervention is divine or purely circumstantial is a recurring theme throughout Benedetta with Birke and Verhoeven never quite ruling out either entirely. Verhoeven finds humour and a sense of overwrought camp in these moments of apparent divinity – such as the absurdity of young Benedetta suckling on a statue of the Mary which collapses on top of her (foreshadowing much?). Yet as events get into full swing and we centre on the now grown-up Benedetta, Verhoeven asserts himself as a master of crafting a tone which straddles highly erotic, absurd and racked in period stiffness.
The elegance of the title scene’s choral singing, quickly make way for some gleefully exploitative moments as the grim horrors and suppressed desires within the Church creep into view. Benedetta’s eroticised visions of Jesus (slicing snakes or brutally stabbing attackers to save his Bride) present this type of stilted religion in a humorous and sensationalised light, crafting a depiction of vivid visions, madness or Benedetta’s bold imagination. There’s also helpings of period gristle from flagellation to torturous members of the inquisition – and that’s before the bubonic plague rears its head – further building a sense of the grimy period exploitation at the heart of Benedetta.
Yet amidst the gruesomeness of 17th Century life, is the eroticised world of Benedetta and Bartolemea whose flirtation simmers throughout the film. Playful teasing and flashing help the film live up to the title of its source material Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun, yet the highly-charged sexual relationship between the pair builds to the point of the figure of Mary being carved into a sexual device for the ladies. Verhoeven directs the romance between the two women of God with a fiery intensity and bristling sensuality, whilst Efira and Patakia embody the raunchy roles with aplomb.
As Benedetta’s influence in the convent grows and her religious visions become more assertive and apocalyptic, Verhoeven ramps up a stirring sense of tension. Investigations into Benedetta’ conduct and relationships in the film’s latter act – marked by the arrival of Lambert Wilson’s Papal Nuncio – further throw her claims and behaviour into question. The filmmaker has fun capturing the hypocrisy of ‘pious’ church officials with light humorous touches such as the Nuncio’s maid who proceeds to show her ability to lactate on command. The foreshadowing of the plague’s expected arrival in Tuscany also becomes a central point in the latter act, ramping up the unease and tension.
The beating heart of Benedetta is, however, Virginie Efira’s barnstorming performance. The actress plays the role with a beautifully pitched mystery. Is she having visions? Is she a fraud? Is she mentally ill? At various points throughout Benedetta, the actress manages to convince us of each before throwing us down another path. Efira embodies Benedetta’s commanding presence, capturing her transition from rule following pious Sister to the sexual-domineering leader of the convent. Touching on religious hypocrisy, sexual freedom, and the fragility of human psychology, Efira’s performance is ripe for dissection, discussion and debate.
Verhoeven’s Benedetta is sheer treat that commands our attention through a narrative that toys with ambiguity and mystery, whilst immersing us in a world of exploitative, satirical and shocking religious hypocrisy. Benedetta is deliciously sacrilegious and asserts Verhoeven as a master of his craft.