Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Verhoeven & David Birke
★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
There are few straight male directors to have ever sat behind a camera who understand sexuality in the way Paul Verhoeven has proved he does. Some will say different, arguing that Verhoeven’s approach to eroticism is lurid and nothing more. Benedetta, once more, shows that the Dutch filmmaker is not afraid to portray subjects the general public find difficult to digest, and certainly has no hangups about depicting sexuality with a refreshing honesty usually only seen in independent films.
The film’s story centres on the real life Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), a Catholic mystic and nun who engaged in a lesbian relationship with another nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Benedetta struggled against the abbess of her convent, Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), and eventually was imprisoned for heretical spirituality.
The story of Benedetta is about queer persecution by the Roman Catholic Church and how Benedetta’s lesbianism was, in the eyes of the clergy, irreconcilable with her spirituality, for which she’d eventually be punished and imprisoned. Verhoeven, through an erotic and Gothic surrealism, portrays Benedetta as a woman whose queerness and spirituality were a stand for equality, a resistance to the dominant hetero-patriarchal culture in the Catholic Church. Benedetta’s story is ultimately a tragic one, yet her persistence in the face of being persecuted is inspiring, especially as her sexuality, along with her spiritual visions of Christ, merge into a form of queer spirituality that refuses to accept God and queerness as inherently opposed forces.
A central concept in Benedetta is how human desires, secrets, and urges change very little at their core throughout the course of human history. Verhoeven shows how everything from lust and sexuality to crude humour has stayed relatively the same since the 17th century and, no doubt, since much, much longer before that. Near the start of the film are shots of city streets and performers doing an act for people; one of them uses a torch to light a fart aflame, like modern day frat boys, and everybody laughs at the spectacle. Similarly, Verhoeven depicts how people’s need for sexuality endures throughout history, and in the most unlikely of places: a convent of nuns. Later in the film we see Bartolomea and Benedetta hide a wooden Virgin Mary dildo in a hollowed out religious text. It’s comical, to a point, because even nowadays in the 21st century people are finding ways to keep their sex toys hidden, and it’s likely that, somewhere out there, someone’s using a Bible to keep theirs concealed from prying eyes.
At the same time Verhoeven shows how human sexuality and crude humour haven’t actually changed across history, he evokes the same understanding for how human prejudice has also changed very little since the 17th century. That’s shown in the film significantly through the antisemitism of the early modern Roman Catholic Church. Sister Felicita, a supposedly holy woman, complains about not wanting to “haggle like a Jew” over money. Far more disturbing is that one nun in the convent is discovered to have Jewish heritage and she’s ostracised by the others because being a Jew in the Catholic Church was seen as “a sin that cannot be forgiven.” Maybe the Catholics have changed somewhat since then, that doesn’t mean an ugly, hostile world has changed much in terms of antisemitism.
The Roman Catholic Church has also, since its earliest days, oppressed women and queers. The whole plot involving Benedetta and Bartolomea expresses the Church’s anti-queerness. There are many instances where the oppression of women is also just as clear. When Bartolomea first goes to the convent we hear Sister Felicita speak about being a “bride of Christ,” an eternal patriarchal image. Felicita also haggles over the price the convent will get for the young woman: “Outside these walls, the bride price is not less than fifty coins.” Of course it’s not a contest, but the lesbians in Benedetta do have it worse than the hetero nuns.
we all have to play our roles, no?”
Benedetta’s religious faith and queerness combined subvert the Church’s perspective on a “pure soul” meaning a “pure body.” When Benedetta’s charged with “blasphemy and sexual perversion” it’s further specified as “a blasphemy that distorts the order of things“—the Roman Catholic Church sees queer identity, and especially queer sexuality, as something that disturbs the very order of things, made clearer when one of the clergy is disgusted about Bendetta having sex with a woman “like a man with a woman” (i.e. the so-called ‘proper’ sexual order).
At one point, Sister Felicita says: “Miracles don‘t happen in bed, believe me.” While her repressed life as a nun won’t allow her to see it there already exists a close relationship between eroticism and religion. Benedetta assures others: “You will feel his love inside of you.” This understanding of Christ’s love is the idea of being ‘filled’ with the Holy Spirit, language laden with sexuality via penetrative imagery. There’s also already an unsettlingly violent sexuality in Christianity’s origin, too. The story of Jesus’s birth alone is, beneath the surface, full of sexual violence in that God impregnates Mary, without consent, and makes her bear his child.
Throughout Benedetta, religious imagery and language are subverted to show their relationship to eroticism. During one scene, Bartolomea puts the Benedetta’s nightdress over the latter’s face while performing oral sex. The way Benedetta’s face looks with the nightdress over it appears like a Gothic image of the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial shroud in which Jesus Christ was wrapped following his crucifixion. We also later see Benedetta go from prayer to pleasure as she exclaims “Oh, my God” as Bartolomea pleasures her. Her sexual ecstasy culminates in an orgasm as Benedetta takes the Lord’s name in vain moaning: “Jesus!”
Most tragic and rage-inducing is how Benedetta’s persecution, as well as the physical torture of Bartolomea, illustrates the Church’s weaponisation of sexuality in various ways against those who won’t conform to their prescribed patriarchal heteronormativity. Benedetta has both her queer identity shunned and her religious identity denied; the Church cannot accept the spirituality of a queer person, they will not allow her to simultaneously be lesbian and religious because it goes against their notions about true spirituality. Worse still is the torture of Bartolomea as the clergy force her to confess against Benedetta. During the torture, the pear of anguish is used on Bartolomea, the irony being that today people use such tools for BDSM, but the Church once used it as a sexually violent tool to produce confessions. Even another young nun, who’s punished for lying, has to self-flagellate in front of the clergy in one scene, forced to expel the devil and the sin from her body; the flagellation mirrors BDSM practices, again like the pear of anguish, and especially so with the young woman being stripped down.
There’s another interesting, if not tragic, queer comparison in Verhoeven’s presentation of the Church moralising the plague’s effects on individuals and how religious people did the same in the 20th century with a modern plague, AIDS, blaming it on gays. Those who wound up getting the plague were often told, particularly by the clergy, that it happened because they fell out of favour with God. In the 1980s, this sentiment was even more intensified by hateful religious folk, many of whom all but taunted gay men with AIDS as having contracted the disease because of their homosexuality. While the plague is not a central focus of the film it constantly hovers in the background, a shadow cast over everything else, and in that sense it’s an important piece of Bendettta, especially with a comparison between reactions to the plague and reactions to AIDS, a warranted comparison because of Verhoeven’s strong attention to queer issues in his film.
What’s most stunning about Verhoeven’s film is seeing Benedetta’s queerness and spirituality come together, which is what the film is really about in the end, the reality that a non-heteronormative existence does not exclude us from a spiritual one; the two identities are not mutually exclusive, they’re able to coexist. Bendetta makes a powerful statement in one scene when she says: “Shame does not exist under the protection of God‘s love.” Her religious visions are telling, too. She sees herself being attacked by snakes only to be saved by a sword-wielding Jesus, all of which comes after Bartolomea fingers her during choir. Benedetta has another vision of Jesus on the cross, persecuted for his differences, and we see Christ appearing as if he has a vagina; a gender non-conforming Jesus hangs on the cross, not dying for our sins but dying because of the fear of others. In Benedetta, there’s always a presence of the erotic, the orgasmic, the sacred, and the queer, all intertwined in a subversive, surreal whirlwind. Verhoeven’s honest, erotically charged approach to the intriguing story of Benedetta Carlini speaks volumes in an increasingly secular world, and a world in which many queer people, of all identifications, continue to grapple with their relationship to God.