26th Oct2021

LFF 2021: ‘Bendetta’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin | Written by Paul Verhoeven, David Birke | Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Director Paul Verhoeven turns his hand to nunsploitation with Bendetta, a French language melodrama based on the true story of a 17th century nun who experienced religious visions and was punished for her lesbian affairs. By turns titilating, provocative and darkly funny, it’s a potent brew that provides illicit thrills, while taking a few judicious swipes at religious hypocrisy.

Based on a 1986 book about a real-life 18th century nun by Judith C. Brown (entitled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy), the film centres on Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efra), who grows up at an Italian convent run by Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) after being left there by her family as a young girl. Plagued by decidedly unusual religious visions throughout her life, Benedetta finds a different kind of ecstasy when she begins an affair with Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), a young novice who’s come to the abbey to escape her abusive father and brothers.

Meanwhile, Benedetta’s visions attract the attention of church authorities (chiefly Lambert Wilson as the Papal Nonce), especially when she appears to manifest stigmata. And when her affair is revealed, it puts both Benedetta and Bartolomea in danger.

Technically, Benedetta is a biography, since a surprising number of details from the movie (even some of the more salacious ones, like the statue of Mary dildo) are present in Brown’s impeccably researched source material. However, it’s fair to say that an accurate biography of the real-life Benedetta is far from Verhoeven’s main concern here. Instead, it provides a handy conduit for some of his more familiar proclivities, namely saucy nun-on-nun action, excessive violence (Benedetta’s dreams feature what can only be referred to as a sort of action movie Jesus) and scathing attacks on pompous authority figures.

With that in mind, Benedetta is exactly as much fun as you’d expect from a Paul Verhoeven nunsploitation movie. The sex scenes are suitably titilating and nicely handled, courtesy of female cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (who also shot BPM), while the violence is alternately darkly funny (the sight of Jesus lopping off heads with his massive sword is properly hilarious) and genuinely terrifying, especially when the Papal Nonce whips out his favourite torture device.

However, alongside all the sex and violence, Verhoeven also has a point to make and the film presents a scathing critique of the hypocritical, money-grabbing church authorities – Sister Felicita is first introduced fleecing Benedetta’s parents, and she’s the one who realises she can turn Benedetta’s religious visions to her financial advantage, regardless of whether they are real or faked. On that score, Verhoeven provides a generous note of ambiguity, hinting that she makes the stigmata herself (a piece of broken crockery is often visible), but never showing her in the act.

Benedetta also has a point to make about the dangers of religious hysteria and the ways it can be manipulated. There’s even a bizarre note of topicality with the introduction of a deadly plague in the latter half of the film – the production pre-dated the pandemic, so it’s pure coincidence, but it’s still strange how resonant some of the dialogue appears to be.

The performances are excellent. Efira has a calming presence and makes a compelling lead, while also sparking strong chemistry with Patakia, who has a much wilder quality by contrast, both emotionally and sexually. Similarly, Rampling brings several interesting layers to Sister Felicita and Wilson is pure pompous perfection as the Papal Nonce.

In short, this is a thoroughly enjoyable romp that leaves you marveling at Verhoeven’s degree of tonal control, in that it could so easily have toppled over into full-blown camp. Instead it’s up there with the very best of the saucy nun genre. Recommended, if you like that sort of thing.

**** 4/5

Benedetta screened as part of this years London Film Festival.


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