By Peg Aloi
Rather disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the expressions of lesbian eroticism in Benedetta are very obviously depicted for the male gaze.
Benedetta, directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema.
But not just any nunnery … oh no, this one shall contain erotic secrets and sexy scandals! Nudity! Well-lit cunnilingus! Dildo carving! Ecstatic moaning! And of course, the notorious centuries-old intolerance of the Catholic church which hypocritically encourages all manner of sexual subterfuge and perversion. Not that lesbianism is perverse: far from it! But this medieval-era sex romp masquerading as a historical drama suggests that even when women boldly go after what they want, their sexual urges should still be punishable by death. “All witchcraft stems from carnal desire, which is in women insatiable,” or so said those two German guys who wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, the famous 15th-century witch-hunting manual.
Based on Judith Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, director Paul Verhoeven’s latest film is at times a fairly straightforward period piece. Set in Tuscany, most of the action takes place within the walls of a convent dedicated to Saint Mary. Young Benedetta arrives at the convent at age nine. She’s from a modest merchant’s family, and various strange events have convinced her village that she has unusual powers of spiritual insight. Initially traumatized by the austere living conditions of the convent, she soon becomes a model initiate, but her overeager demeanor tends to annoy the strict abbess Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling, in a subdued but juicy role). In her late 20s, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) meets a novitiate who has come to the convent to escape her father’s abuse. Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is immodest and earthy and, sensing Benedetta’s curiosity, she sets about to willfully seduce her. Normally such exploits would be severely punished, but Benedetta understands that her mystical visions and spontaneous episodes of stigmata give her leverage within the abbey as well as beyond its walls. The two nuns pursue their erotic delights with increasing enthusiasm, and the walls of the convent can barely contain their screams of joy.
In the context of this story arc of sexual awakening, the film’s heritage tone is established firmly, but gradually we begin to see odd moments of anachronism, such as snatches of contemporary music along with modern looking makeup and bleached hair. Normally I’d chalk that up to flawed production design, but then it occurred to me that the flashes of modernity in the film’s aesthetic were intended to enhance the rather prurient scenes that dominate the film’s narrative arc. I dunno what Verhoeven’s childhood was like, but I am guessing his adolescence was a time of richly detailed sexual fantasies that dovetailed with his evolving opinion of the church. I mean, we can’t really control our kinks, right? They arise out of a combination of factors, including what pleases us, what traumatizes us, what we fear, what we desire, what is available to us, and what’s forbidden to us. Sexual pleasure in almost every form has been forbidden and abhorred by the Catholic church. And it’s no secret that the institution is rife with sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups.
Is Verhoeven trying to exorcise demons of a frustrated or traumatic adolescence by making this film a bit more raunchy than it needs to be, but perhaps not as raunchy as it ought to be? (One wonders, for example, what bad boy fantasist Ken Russell might have done with this material.) Rather disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the expressions of lesbian eroticism in Benedetta are very obviously depicted for the male gaze. If there’s any kind of feminist message intended here, it’s undermined by the manipulative machinations of nearly every female character, and the rather unimaginative and somewhat crude portrayal of sexuality.
Still, the film is entertaining enough, with good performances all around. The story of a nun who utilizes her sexual wiles and powers of persuasion to become a sort of minor celebrity feels like a familiar conceit. It sets up Benedetta’s vilification rather well, paralleling the witch craze of medieval Europe, when women were accused of lechery and heresy in equal measure. But, as news of the scandalous behavior in this Tuscan abbey reaches Florence, the Nuncio is dispatched to investigate. Lambert Wilson is excellent as the conceited and snobbish cleric, who thinks the nuns of the abbey are little better than filthy guttersnipes. His feigned shock and revulsion belies his savvy sadism and, when Benedetta is put on trial, it all starts to feel a bit contrived, cinematically speaking. Even the arrival of the frightening specter of bubonic plague feels slightly ridiculous at times, though it does lend a tinge of topical urgency to this period piece. The film’s final message of human frailty is a stark reminder of our own ongoing turbulence, where performative moral outrage continues to trump the mitigation of real human crises that are rending our social fabric. Whether God or man (or Goddess or woman) will triumph in the end is a question that remains unanswered, but Benedetta reminds us that the kinds of people who inspire cultlike devotion are usually those we project our own desires onto.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.