Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, based on the non-fiction book by Judith C. Brown
Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/20/21
Opens: December 3, 2021
Joan of Arc meets Covid in Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” based on true events that occurred in Pescia, Tuscany, Italy during the 17th Century. If you’re familiar with Verhoeven you already know that this creative director was responsible for what some consider a movie tied with Ed Wood’s 1957 “Planet 9 from Outer Space”– namely Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” I for one got a kick out of the latter which I interpret as Verhoeven’s bid for satirical honors, but that’s another story. His best film is “Black Book,” about a singer who engaged with the Gestapo for the Dutch Resistance in Nazi occupied Holland.
I cannot get over the feeling that “Benedetta” is something like “Showgirls,” at times laughable, and yet also like “Black Book,” full of thrilling drama. It’s a mixed bag, well worth you time if you go for period pieces, and like to see both religious heroism and the damnation of hell. You can access the story of Benedetta through an extensive article in Wikipedia. Verhoeven changes mostly the part where the title character actually died in prison for something more dramatic (and somewhat laughable as well).
Shot in Tuscany’s Montepulciano, this tale is about life in a nunnery that’s anything but dull in that within the walls, the abbess once spied on Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and her roommate Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) engaged in lesbian sex. Not only is their relationship considered sacrilege—even if it had not included a non-vibrating dildo, a wooden penis carved from one end of the figure of Virgin Mary. Benedetta worshipped Virgin Mary from her childhood (Elena Plonika) and during one prayer witnessed a large statue of the Virgin fall to the floor on top of the poor girl. Much later she is introduced to carnal love by Bartolomea, who strangely does not require Benedetta to satisfy her because she is totally involved with pleasing her partner. The abbess had regularly taught the women that their biggest enemy is their bodies, which is one reason she dresses her flock with itchy cloth. Apparently the abbess (Charlotte Rampling) never took a course in Education because her teachings went into one orifice and out the other.
The picture features full female nudity, the two young women showing off their bikini wax, making us wonder where they got the blades to shave themselves so neatly. By the conclusion, trials are conducted by the papal nuncio Alfonso Giglioli (Lambert Wilson), who is not sure whom to believe—the abbess who swears that she saw the two having sex, or the lovers who insist that they did not. Crowd scenes abound, the plague has hit Europe, but the 17th Century’s Covid-type disease spared the entire town of Pescia. Credit Benedetta, a complex character who is both an aspiring nymphomaniac and a visionary who in one case receives stigmata—the wounds of Christ—on her hands, head and torso.
Nothing by Verhoeven should be missed. The man knows how to run crowd scenes, trials, and best of all, lesbian sex. But of course you did not attend this movie for the last item but for a better understanding of Church politics in the 1600s. You get that and more particularly since the director evokes solid performances from Charlotte Rampling and Virginie Efira.
131 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+