Image: Joan Josep Tharrats


Commentary on the new film by Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven is back in theaters with Benedetta, historical drama inspired by the life of a nun who claimed to communicate with Jesus and was accused of witchcraft in XNUMXth century Italy. In marketing and the press, in part because of the director of Robocop, showgirls e Wild instinct, the words “polemic”, “controversy”, “scandal” have appeared somewhat automatically.

If Benedetta's erotic relationship with another nun still causes scandal, more than two centuries after the publication of a novel like the religious, by Denis Diderot (beautifully filmed by Jacques Rivette in 1966 and refilmed by Guillaume Nicloux in 2013), this says more about the moral regression of our time than about the historical fact itself or about the film that fictionally recreates it.

Therefore, the interest of Benedetta, but in the way in which Verhoeven uses this story to explore more subtle and perennial issues, such as the relationships between faith and desire, mystical ecstasy and hysteria, devotion and libido, secular power and religious power. Between the flesh and the spirit, in short.

The story, told in the book impure acts (1986), by Judith C. Brown, begins in the last years of the XNUMXth century, when the wealthy parents of Benedetta Carlini (Elena Plonka/Virginie Efira) interned her as a novice, still a child, in a convent in the small town of Pescia, in Tuscany. The first scene, still on the way to the convent, already introduces the theme of the miracle: the family is attacked by robbers and a bird defecates in the eye of one of them, supposedly due to an intervention of the Virgin, invoked by little Benedetta.

Other prodigies will come, but Verhoeven's astuteness consists in always leaving them on the dubious frontier between miracle and hoax, material explanation and divine intervention. More important, in my view, than the veracity of the phenomena is the observation of human behavior in the face of them, both from the individual, psychological, and collective point of view: the prevailing mentality at the time, political interests, the indistinction between the Church and political power.

It is not appropriate to anticipate here a plot in which everything happens: possession (real or fictional), plague, suicide, martyrdom at the stake, resurrection (or catalepsy), lesbian relationships and a mysterious comet that hovers over the city. Some of these things are documented, others have been invented or modified for literary, dramatic, or aesthetic effect. After so much time has passed, when in doubt print the legend, as a John Ford character said.

What matters is to verify how close the mystical ecstasy is to sexual enjoyment (or its repression), and that the saint and the witch are two faces of the same figure, depending on the social and political interests that surround her. The most famous example is that of Joan of Arc, burned at the stake as a heretic at age 19 and canonized centuries later. A girl marked by the phenomenon of the mystical trance and caught in the middle of the Hundred Years' War between the English and the French.

Em Benedetta, the protagonist’s status as saint or witch follows a pendulum movement, shifts as the correlation of forces changes in the intricate political game within the Church, involving the abbess of the convent (the extraordinary Charlotte Rampling), the priest of Pescia (Olivier Rabourdin) and the Nuncio of Florence (Lambert Wilson).

The proximity between sanctity and sex, or between the spiritual and the carnal, is suggested on little Benedetta's first day in the convent: when a life-size statue of the Virgin falls (miraculously?) on the girl, she sucks in an impulse Mary's breast. And her first lesbian relationship begins with cellmate Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) groping her breast to feel "the big heart" that Jesus has placed inside Benedetta.

All this sanctity/sex dialectic is synthesized in an admirable object: a wooden statuette of the Virgin Mary on whose base the vivacious Bartolomea carves a penis. It is no coincidence that this ambivalent artifact will be an essential part of Benedetta's trial.

Verhoeven stages this drama with many implications (moral, political, religious) with formidable confidence. He trusts his means. It is admirable, for example, in the scene of Benedetta's entry into the convent, the passage from the solar, luminous and colorful reality of the outside to the chiaroscuro of baroque painting, almost monochromatic, which begins to prevail within the walls.

In parallel with this drastic change of lights, the negotiation between Benedetta's father and the convent's abbess unfolds, a raw financial bargain that reveals the sad condition of the woman at the time and removes any idea of ​​vocation or faith.

Likewise, the director is not afraid of humor and ridicule when representing the protagonist's visions, extravagant scenes that suggest a mixture of Indiana Jones and Monty Python. They are almost comic-adventure interludes during the course of the drama, with an iconography close to popular plays and children's representations of the religious universe, but also to historical entertainment films (from the mythological epics of production B to spaghetti westerns).

Outside of Benedetta's visions, the world is much darker, and the drama builds in tension, suspense and violence until it reaches a literally apocalyptic climax. But, no matter how serious the subjects addressed, no matter how cruel the scenes described, Verhoeven seems to be having fun, telling us all the time: this is what cinema is, this continuous illusion, this rapture of the senses. Like a collective trance in a profane temple.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brazilian).

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG


France, 2021, 127 minutes.
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven.
Screenplay: David Birke and Paul Verhoeven.
Cast: Virginie Efira, Elena Plonka, Charlotte Rampling, Olivier Rabourdin, Lambert Wilson.

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