As a queer lady raised within the Catholic faculty system, the premise of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (2022) – a ‘biographical drama’ a few Seventeenth-century lesbian nun affair – instantly hooked me. The Dutch provocateur’s new film, which debuted to a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes final yr, guarantees an irreverent strategy to queerness within the Church; it’s a tour-de-force of medieval unpleasantries, kisses in shadowy cloisters, Virgin Mary statues refashioned as intercourse toys, and headless male ecclesiastics failing to police feminine need.
Yet, whereas Benedetta leaves nearly nothing to the creativeness, its agenda isn’t any much less ambiguous by the tip of its two-hour run-time than in the beginning. Derived from the pretty obscure non-fiction guide Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986) by Judith C. Brown, Benedetta follows the titular character’s (Virginie Efira) arrival at an abbey in Pescia, a city in northern Italy, as a baby. It fast-forwards to her life as a nun on the age of eighteen, when she develops a relationship with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a girl fleeing her abusive father to whom the abbey provides sanctuary.
Themes of sin, repression, and holy judgement riddle Verhoeven’s film like its characters’ plague signs. Unlike latest additions to the sapphic historic fiction sub-genre – suppose Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Ammonite (2020) – Benedetta shouldn’t be classed as a ‘love story’ per se. Overwhelmingly, Benedetta is fixated on the feminine physique as a website of contradiction and energy. Its patriarchal objectification is absolute from the beginning, when younger Benedetta is haggled to the convent by her father at a value bargained by the abbess.
Upon her arrival, a Sister calls for Benedetta strip and placed on an itchy burlap tunic, telling her: “Your worst enemy is your physique. Best to not really feel at house in it.” In the film, feminine nudity within the public sphere is all the time related to disgrace and punishment imposed by males; be it Christina’s (Louise Chevillotte) public self-flagellation for accusing Benedetta of deception, or Bartolomea’s torture after she and Benedetta are accused of fornication.
Markedly, Benedetta herself rejects this non secular logic from the narrative’s get-go. As a baby, she conveys an older-than-her-years instinct for society’s indictments of ladies, some extent within the film which Verhoeven exploits each satirically and significantly. At one level, the tunic-pushing nun raises her wood finger, stating that she needs her complete physique would too turn into wooden to withstand temptation. Benedetta innocently counters that this could be entrapping and lifeless, “like a tombstone”.
Yet regardless of her snide remarks at these establishments, Benedetta is something however untrue. Devout to the nth diploma, she believes herself a conduit of the divine, gripped by more and more intense, vision-induced mania on the identical time her honesty is progressively doubted by the abbey.
The query of Benedetta’s holiness hangs over the film and not using a clear decision. Are the bloody cuts on her arms, toes, and brow stigmata – divinely-made wounds mimicking crucifixion – or self-made with damaged glass shards? Does she predict the descent of plague upon Pescia, or is it merely feudal society’s poor infectious illness information? Is Benedetta a sinister con artist, or does she really consider she is God’s mouthpiece? When one reply appears indubious, one other rears its head.
In such a approach, Verhoeven calls out the indisputability of claiming ‘God’s will’, the way it has and continues to exculpate highly effective males and establishments of duty and guilt. If Benedetta is in any respect responsible, maybe it’s only of a capability to efficiently applicable the patriarchal non secular frameworks that will in any other case oppress her as a queer lady within the Seventeenth century. We could hate her by the tip of the film — I nearly definitely did — however can we blame her? She does, in any case, out-maneouver the Church’s male leaders, who attempt to burn her on the stake for homosexuality, by convincing the villagers of her holy standing.
At the identical time, it’s laborious to not be suspicious of a film by a straight man marketed as a raunchy lesbian-sex occasion. Verhoeven additionally has a factor for insane, blonde feminine leads (be aware: Benedetta Carlini, who’s brown-rooted blonde is slightly too anachronistic) and a cinematic historical past of doubtful feminine sexualisation, reminiscent of Basic Instinct (1990).
Similar discussions to these round Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) have emerged round Benedetta because of this. Is this Verhoeven’s middle-finger on the Church’s homophobia and misogyny? Or is the male gaze sexualising yet one more lesbian love story, capitalising off drained, specific shock-value?
Like many, over a decade of Catholic schooling didn’t impart an acute sense of Christ upon me. Hardly, it compelled my agnosticism. And but, there’s a sure sort of nostalgia to be present in queer wishes and acts carried out in secret, encoded as disobedience, by many LGBTQIA+ folks whose sexual improvement predominantly occurred in non secular environments. The same case unfolds for the expression of feminine sexuality for a lot of women raised in non secular non-public faculties and households. Ultimately, this sentiment solely serves the heteropatriarchy, by confining queerness and feminine seuxality to the non-public and taboo.
The carnality and sensationalism of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship solely upholds this; clothes by chance slips away, curtains flip translucent in moonlight, and holy statues are carved into dildos. As one reviewer in the New Yorker states; “the intercourse may have been dancing, may have been preventing, may have been every other sort of bodily contact, as a result of I didn’t really feel like that film was truly all for intercourse as a channel for human connection.”
Yet the passions of religion and feminine sexuality, and religion and queerness – so typically positioned in an irreconcilable dichotomy – are additionally subversively unified. When a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary falls on child-Benedetta at night time with out crushing her, her first intuition is to suckle its stone teet, conveniently hovering proper above her head. In her goals as a teen, Jesus Christ is a love curiosity – a intercourse object, even – and rides a white horse. Wood is remodeled from an emblem for chaste lifelessness into one in every of sapphic pleasure.
While Verhoven’s ethical agenda definitely deserves interrogation, I don’t suppose Benedetta needs to be condemned due to it. I exited the cinema unhappy, unable to cohere the film’s which means but nonetheless felt one thing there — a way of victory, a darkish peal of laughter, an indirect solar shining in one other room. Perhaps this factor was the stirring of queerness from historical past, which has all the time existed however not often been denoted. Whatever the case, we will solely hope such movies are made out of some extent of queer expertise, not fascination or in any other case, in future.
Benedetta is screening in Australian cinemas from 10 February, 2022.