Saturday, December 25, 2021


Paul Verhoeven: Benedetta (FR/NL 2021) starring Virginie Efira as Benedetta Carlini.

Benedetta / Benedetta.
    FR/NL © 2021 SBS Productions, Pathé, France 2 Cinéma, France 3 Cinéma. Co-PC: Topkapi Films ; Belga Productions. P: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, Jérôme Seydoux.
    D: Paul Verhoeven. SC: David Birke & Paul Verhoeven – inspired by the book Immodest Acts : The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986) by Judith C. Brown. DP: Jeanne Lapoirie – colour – 2.39:1 – source format: ARRIRAW 3.4K – master format: digital intermediate 2K – release: D-Cinema. PD: Katia Wyszkop. Cost: Pierre-Jean Larroque. Makeup: Odile Fourquin. Hair: Virginie Duranteau. SFX: Paulo Galiano. VFX: Alain Carsoux.
    M: Anne Dudley. M selections:
– Hildegard von Bingen
– "Dies irae" (Gregorian chant probably from the 13th century, probably by Tommaso da Celano) arr. Erik Nordgren for Det sjunde inseglet (1957).
    S: Jean-Paul Mugel. Mixing: Cyril Holtz. ED: Job Ter Burg. Casting: Stéphane Batut.
    C: Virginie Efira (Benedetta Carlini), Charlotte Rampling (Sœur Felicita – Abbesse), Daphné Patakia (Bartolomea), Lambert Wilson (Le Nonce), Olivier Rabourdin (Alfonso Cecchi), Louise Chevillotte (Christina, daughter of the Abbesse), Hervé Pierre (Paolo Ricordati), Clotilde Courau (Midea Carlini), David Clavel (Giulinao Carlini), Guilaine Londez (Sœur Jacopa).
    131 min
    Filming dates: 16 July – Sep 2018.
    Loc (from IMDb): – Montepulciano (Siena, Tuscany, Italy). – City gate: Porta al Prato. – Convent church interiors: Abbaye de Silvacane (Route de La Roque d'Anthéron, La Roque d'Anthéron, Bouches-du-Rhône, France). – Convent interiors: abbaye cistercienne, Le Thoronet, Var, France. – Piazza Filippo Silvestri: convent exteriors of Bevagna (Perugia, Umbria, Italy). – As Florence, devastated by the plague: Perugia (Umbria, Italy).
    Languages: French and Latin.
    Festival premiere: 9 July 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
    Finnish premiere: 17 Dec 2021, released on 4K DCP by ELKE / NonStop Entertainment with Finnish subtitles by Kanerva Airaksinen.
    Corona precaution: 100% capacity with vaccine passport, hand hygiene, obligatory face masks.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 3, Iso Kristiina, Lappeenranta, 25 Dec 2021.
AA: Paul Verhoeven, like Quentin Tarantino, is a master of the lavish art exploitation cinema. They make films that satisfy genre expectations and obey genre conventions. They also transcend them.

The typical convention of nunsploitation cinema is the figure of the sex-obsessed nun. It is a woeful cliché and a flagrant affront to the noble legacy of monasteries.

But it is in the nature of the cinema to be subversive and transgressive. Cinema is the art of the dream mode, as defined by Susanne Langer. It has direct access to the unconscious. The lure of the offensive is irresistible. Taboos are to be broken.

The central emblem in Benedetta is a pocket Virgin Mary statuette doubling as a vibrator. (Based on reality, such an object is mentioned among others by Eduard Fuchs in his Illustrierte Sittengeschichte. I seem to remember that Luis Buñuel was fascinated by the phenomenon).

Staging scenes of unapologetic sexploitation, Verhoeven does not limit himself to luscious Lesbian love scenes in the interest of the male gaze. As proudly interpreted by Virginie Efira as Benedetta and Daphné Patakia as Bartolomea, his film is a celebration of female power and emancipation. Men appear as predators. Among women, love is possible.

The characters may be lacking in realism and nuance, but they are complex and haunting. The performances of Virginie Efira and Daphné Patakia are too modern to be historically convincing. They wear nuns' habits; their habitus is secular. They certainly are charismatic. The film as a whole is well cast.

Verhoeven has little patience with the sacred. Religion and the church appear as mere mystification, hoax and deceit. Even Sister Benedetta is not free from a huge, life-size lie, or perhaps she is capable of a magnificent self-deception. There is a grand paradox. Benedetta's faith is genuine, and hers is a true power of the spirit. We are left to contemplate: is her faith based on self-deception? Or does her faith have a more profound fountain, too overwhelming for available conventions and expressions to convey? For me, the answer is a bit of both, gravitating towards the second one.

The novelty of the figures of Benedetta and Bartolomea is that they are true believers who are frank about sexuality. In contrast to the rest of the world, they are not hypocrites. They succeed in integrating their faith with their sexuality. The power of the spirit and the power of sex are one.

The physical production of the film, designed by Katia Wyszkop and shot on location, is vivid and engaging but at times with a digital animation look. The film has been shot in Tuscany, in the heart of the Renaissance, where the actual events took place during the Counter-Reformation.

A hundred years have passed since Luther's theses against the hypocrisy of the Vatican, condemning indulgence payments for instance. In Verhoeven's film corruption is rampant. Salvation can be bought, and the Nuntius (Lambert Wilson) breaks his vow of celibacy, sleeping with prostitutes and impregnating his maid while condemning a genuine love between nuns.

It is an age of discrimination of women and persecution of sexual diversity. It is also an age of persecution against Jews who were cast as scapegoats for the plagues. This is reflected in the figure of the Jewish nun, Sister Jacopa (Guilaine Londez).

The cinematography by Jeanne Lapoire is eloquent. The interiors are candlelit, and the warm glow is appealing and sensual. Verhoeven studied Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part II for double camera set-ups in tight corridors, and pays homage to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in crowd scenes of plague, persecution and burning at the stake.

Anne Dudley's score is enchanting, with passages from Hildegard von Bingen and the Gregorian chant "Dies irae" with cinematic resonances from Lang (Metropolis), Dreyer (The Day of Wrath) and Bergman (The Seventh Seal) to Kubrick (The Shining).

The premiere of Benedetta, shot in 2018, was postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. It is uncanny how powerfully its epic scenes of plague and lockdown resonate in this year.

NB. Paul Verhoeven has a special attraction to a brave, intelligent and highly-pheromoned blonde heroine. In the beginning there was Renée Soutendijk (Spetters, The Fourth Man). In Hollywood he cast Sharon Stone (Total Recall, Basic Instinct). In Showgirls there was Elizabeth Berkley, in Black Book, Carice van Houten and now we are stunned by Virginie Efira. (Not ignoring Verhoeven's great non-blondes such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Gershon and Isabelle Huppert).