By Milan Perera, Second Year, English
With the billboards for Benedetta (2021) featuring two nuns kissing, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that the latest movie by the Dutch provocateur, Paul Verhoeven is nothing but a gratuitous Nunsploitation movie. But nothing could be further from the truth as Benedetta turns out to be a profound meditation on sanctity, profanity, desire and religious hypocrisy. Based on Judith C Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts, Benedetta pertains to the life and time of the 17th-century Italian mystic nun, Benedetta Carlini.
Centred in 17th century Tuscany, Benedetta, who is born to a wealthy mercantile family yearns for God. Her special devotion, however, is to the Blessed Virgin. Prompted by this unmistakable piety, Benedetta is brought to a nunnery in Pescia by her family. The Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) runs her nunnery much like the CEO of a co-operation rather than as the head of a religious house. After pushing for a good deal with the wealthy merchant father, the abbess finally accepts Benedetta as a novice, who from a young age seems to be gifted with visions of Jesus.
18 years later, things take on a different trajectory when a young woman named Bartolomea from a troubled family background takes refuge in the nunnery, only after the patronage of Benedetta’s father, as the mother abbess emphatically mentions ‘convents are not places of charity!’ Benedetta seems to be blessed with stigmata, a phenomenon widely seen during the Counter-Reformation period where the collective piety of the public is given a booster.
The provost for the region is an ambitious cleric and a bureaucrat to the core who cares nought for God but is intent on proclaiming the ‘miracles’ of Sister Benedetta in order to turn the rugged terrain into a place of pilgrimage. As the friendship dynamic between Benedetta and Bartolomea changes into deeper intimacy, Benedetta’s claims of piety are set into question.
One of the strong points of Verhoeven’s movie making is his refusal to provide neat answers and clear cut conclusions. There is a shard of glass on the floor when Sister Benedetta bleeds from her palms and legs- signifying Christ’s stigmata. Could Benedetta have duped everyone by cutting herself with a shard of glass? Were her visions just hallucinations? Could her erotically charged visions of Jesus be a result of the forced sexual deprivation? Benedetta could be a genuine mystic who in the meantime is in love with a woman. Everything is thrown into murky waters. Nothing is what it seems.
But the one thing that is clear, is the religious hypocrisy of clerics from the mother abbess through Provost to Papal Nuncio. The delicate power dynamic is much akin to an episode of House of Cards (2013-2018) rather than the poetic musings of St.Francis of Assisi who renounced wealth and power. Charlotte Rampling shines as the formidable Mother Abbess who is a worldly-wise, weary shrewd operator. There is an occasional warmth of affection in her which Rampling executes with finesse.
Despite his apparent irreverence to its dogmas and sacrilegious outburst against its imagery, Paul Verhoeven’s quest as an artist has been nothing less than wrestling with God. His 2010 book, Jesus of Nazareth is a testament to this quest of finding the ‘true Jesus’ concealed within layers and layers of rituals and dogma of Roman Catholicism.
Benedetta has already caused a furore where in some countries, with its screening having been banned, amply demonstrating that Verhoeven, even in his mid-80s, is showing no sign of slowing down or failing to shock audiences.
Featured Image: IMDB
Will you be watching Benedetta?