Benedetta: Risking Souls, by Scott Nye
“Paul Verhoeven made a lesbian nun movie set in the 17th century,” they said, and we all sat up with at least an expression that suggested interest, if not fully out loud saying “oh really?” But while lesbian nuns might be the easy sell at the ticket counter, in truth the film is a pretty comprehensive – if certainly incendiary and, depending on your perspective, outright blasphemous – examination of religious devotion and the way organized religion seeks, rewards, and retains power. It takes the spiritual world seriously, even if it’s less sure than its characters of explanations for it.
Loosely based on a nonfiction book by Judith C. Brown (adapted by Verhoeven and his Elle collaborator David Birke), the film follows Benedetta as a young girl, pledged to a convent (with the requisite dowry bestowed), who begins experiencing potential miracles and, as an adult (Virginie Efira) visions of Jesus that may or may not take on physical forms of stigmata and which she may or may not be doing to herself. The first section of the film chiefly follows her religious awakening, which turns into a sexual awakening once a much less refined woman, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), later joins the convent and falls under her tutelage.
If you’re wondering if Verhoeven is at all exploitative of this premise, rest assured, he very much is. It’s a provocative film on just about every level, worthy of the (extremely modest) protests that have popped up around several screenings. Benedetta’s visions of Jesus are not peaceful welcomings into his open arms, but thirsty reveries of a sword-wielding warrior who hacks the heads off the snakes of temptation and allows her to softly remove the cloak from his ripped chest. Her physical expressions of herself as Christ’s vessel are nearer to The Exorcist in the vocal tones and the demands of His followers. Once news of her supposed miracles and communion with Christ reaches higher authorities in the Church, they react with inner skepticism but immediate outer acceptance – miracles are good for business, the convent’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling) acutely concludes. After all, she was the one who negotiated Benedetta’s dowry. Everyone’s in on the take.
Does that include Benedetta herself? Or is she truly Christ’s chosen representative? If she is faking it, what’s she really after? The power she attains is predictably short-lived, and drilling holes in one’s hands is a steep price to pay for a little more sway over your fairly peaceful life. The further into the film we get, the less situated we are in Benedetta’s perspective; she increasingly becomes Verhoevan’s subject and less his protagonist, which in turn puts us in uneasy territory. We, like the nuns, entered into things so trusting of this young woman, only to see her further and further alienate herself. Efira plays this transition magnificently, twisting Benedetta into a young woman of little experience into a capable manipulator and commander.
Verhoeven was semi-famously a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who sought to reconstruct the life of Jesus as a historical figure, analyzing primary documents written outside of The Bible. If Verhoeven’s sole interest in religion is historical, you wouldn’t guess it from this film, which is steeped in some kind of otherworldly madness. Even as Benedetta’s dreams fade from the picture’s routine as we drift further and further from her perspective, it takes on increasingly unreal imagery for her waking life, depicting a world that seems primed for some kind of spiritual intervention, be it salvation or damnation.
Verhoeven’s filmmaking has become a little less determined in recent years, the extraordinary (even, at times, ostentatious) choreography of Basic Instinct or Showgirls replaced with a looser style that places the camera at the mercy of his actors, rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the film is filled with startling images that have seared into my mind, sticking with me weeks after seeing the film. There is a slight sense in which the film feels a little shaggy, but often in a way that aids the sense it could all come apart at the seams. Even peace is merely a way of settling madness into the everyday.