Though it may seem too obvious, I’m still surprised Paul Verhoeven has never made a women’s prison movie given the potential for steamy clinches under pressure of violence. With Benedetta he does what I would assume to be the next best thing—a story set in a convent, and in the 17th century, no less. When we first meet the title character she is a pre-adolescent who is all excited about “taking the veil” because she already has an understanding with her future husband, Jesus Christ, and demonstrates that connection to a bunch of scurvy rogues who encounter her and her rich family on their way to the symbolic betrothal. These punks are about to have their way with the entourage and then she performs what seems like a miracle. The Verhoeven touch here is that instead of going prostrate, the rogues laugh and say that’s a good one and leave them alone.
Based somewhat on a book about lesbian antics in a Renaissance Italy convent, Benedetta essentially tells the story of how this little girl grows up to be a formidable power shifter (now played by Virginie Efira), using her zealotry to outmaneuver the convent’s reverend mother, Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), whose main motivations are not spiritual but capitalistic, thus making her vulnerable. Cultivated to believe that “your body is your worst enemy,” Benedetta’s visions eventually take on a lurid quality that manifest as stigmata. Felicita, as well as the audience, can’t help but think, “Does she or doesn’t she?”, but Benedetta ends up convincing the powers that be—at least those in the small fortified town where they live—that she deserves to run the joint, and Felicita high tails it to Florence where she inveigles the local nuncio (Lambert Wilson) to investigate her usurper. Meanwhile, Benedetta is free to ramp up her sexual affair with fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who “knows” this stuff because she sought protection in the convent after being raped by her father and brothers. The shenanigans don’t disappoint, and involve religious icons whittled into dildos and every position imaginable.
Though Verhoeven does a good job of sending up Catholic dogma and showing how men have used it to subjugate women, his main purpose is to present a rip-roaring tale about sexual abandon, and if he succeeds too well it has less to do with his cinematic skills than with his utter disregard for finer sensibilities. It’s not as rip-roaring as Showgirls, but anyone who appreciated that classic for whatever reasons, including the “wrong” ones, will find a lot to like here, and get a fairly insightful history lesson in the bargain.
In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
Benedetta home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 SBS Productions-Pathe Films-France 2 Cinema-France 3 Cinema