She dreams of Jesus. Her savior. He protects her from otherworldly violence. Visions come in hot flashes of violence and pain. When she dreams of Jesus, in her waking life, she becomes more like Jesus. See, she is embroiled in a tempestuous relationship at the nunnery. During the day, she daydreams about the new nun that has been brought in. She dreams of hot, passionate sex between them. When she dreams about her friend, she wants to become her. She wants to consume her dreams. To sexually penetrate the idea of Jesus, of her friend. It’s all a good nun can do to keep it together. Until she dreams about Jesus again. And she awakes, with crucifixion marks on her hands and feet. She bears the cross. Is it only the cross of her dreams, is she self harming to get closer to her friend and God? When she speaks in tongues, is she imbued with the holy spirit or just burning with desire for control?
Aged 83, Paul Verhoevan has made another masterwork of deep passion. His vision burns red hot. If you’re going to be perverse in your filmmaking, at least have the decency to be this transgressive, sacrilegious, and horny about it. We get a full commitment to the material. In the vein of Ken Russell and his The Devils (1971), Paul Verhoevan courts with would-be controversy like it’s the devil’s plaything. It’s an utter amusement and delight for the director to foul up so much religious imagery, and to do it with such stunning beauty that we might accept it on the grounds of its own newfound holiness. Because, something that is this transgressive, is not an unreligious document. It is holistically divine, built on the back of the holy symbols, to tell an utterly devilish story. Fair play for the filmmaker.
It would feel far afield from a modern filmmaking context if it were not so deliciously devourable. Benedetta plays like a proper thriller. A full-tilt, nuns with their breasts out, about to be incinerated on the cross thriller. A total joy. That it plays as a remarkable piece of film is a testament to Mr. Verhoevan’s enduring gift. He is as stylistically assured as he is horny, and that is a lot. There is an aspect of voyeurism about it, like we’re looking in through a key hole as nuns pleasure themselves with a wooden Virgin Mary fashioned as a dildo. Perverse. Intriguing. You’ve got to see it, though, right? There is an aspect where it is exploitative of its subjects. The characters really do get used up and spit out. They are framed under standard lenses of objectification, too, but always as a means of seizing their own sexuality. With purpose, it is framed by a woman, with very tidy cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie, who worked with Luc Besson, Agnès Varda, and François Ozon, and it shows. She captures beauty and empathy, and it’s never one or the other.
The curious outsider may think the movie sounds a tad overstated. Sure it is. Paul Verhoevan has made a smart career out of bold vanguard filmmaking of this type. Big, bold images that sound improper and brash, but investigate their themes more deeply than the wannabe philosophers who make more money than they do meaningful commentaries. Even taken as it is, set in an 17th Century covenant in Italy, it feels timely, modern, alarming in its relevance. The intersection between religion and the expression of sexual freedom still needs to be thoroughly explored and investigated. Benedetta gets us there.
It’s an immense credit to the lead roles, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), that it works so beautifully. They hold space for each other. They create room on the screen. They operate as one, and independently, with style and grace, performing with exacting direction and clear intellect. The two women’s stories, in a time of plague and faith, pose questions about what we have been living through, but never heavy handedly, never in the manner of The Film That Captures the Issues of the Day. It’s not that dumb. It’s a very smart and credible film made with such mature emotional intelligence. It may be framing pent up sacrilegious sex, but it is so smart about conveying it.
Paul Verhoevan hasn’t lost any of his touch. He’s more in touch with where movies need to go than the modern director is. Benedetta is an alternative thriller, another way to think about and create genre movies, an alternative path that we need to consider. It’s for the good of the medium when films like this get made. Good old stylish films about nuns and sex. A true original. There is nothing like it today; though, there are several things like it from the ’70s. We need to move forward by going back. Films like Benedetta are the future of counterculture at the movies. It’s our responsibility to support them.