(2021) Biographical Drama (IFC) Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Cheveliotte, Hervé Pierre, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Guillaine Londez, Gaëlle Jeantet, Justine Bachelet, Lauriane Riquet, Elena Plonka, Héloise Bresc, Jonathan Couzinié, Vinciane Millereau, Erwan Ribard, Sophie Breyer. Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Some movies test your intellect. Others test your emotional tolerance. Some test your endurance. Others test your beliefs. Some test your credulity, while some test your patience. The latest from celebrated Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Soldier of Orange, Robocop, Total Recall and infamously, Showgirls, tests your permissiveness.
Benedetta Carlini (Efira) is a young woman, the daughter of a well-to-do Italian merchant (Clavel) in the city of Pescia in 17th century Tuscany. She is being delivered to the Theatine convent under the supervision of the Abbess Felicita (Rampling). Benedetta is a devout young woman who has visions of being a Bride of Christ – not just in the sense of being a nun, but an actual bride of actual Jesus, in every sense of the term.
She is given a new novice to mentor, Sister Bartolomea (Patakia), a peasant girl who is fleeing an abusive father who has taken to using her as a substitute wife following the death of her mother. Bartolomea is an earthy, uninhibited sort that Benedetta is immediately drawn to. As Benedetta begins showing signs of stigmata and her visions grow more vivid, the skeptical abbess is sure that her charge is trying to game the system for her own gain, while the local papal nuncio (Lambert) is using the girl’s growing notoriety for his own purposes. In the meantime, Benedetta is discovering her own sexuality and Bartolomea is only too happy to help her explore it.
There is a lot of sexual activity – a lot – even for a French film. A French film…about an Italian nun…directed by a Dutchman. Ah, the European Union! S’anyway, Verhoeven has a reputation for not being overly awed by boundaries, and has had no problem with extreme violence, kinky sex or disturbing imagery in any of his films and he delivers all three here. In some ways, it’s nearly as entertaining to read the reviews of the film. It’s amazing how prudish some critics are; you can feel the pearls being clutched in a death grip as some decry the amount of lesbian sex scenes in the movie. Keep in mind that the movie is based upon Judith C. Brown’s biography of Carlini Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.
The real Carlini was at one time one of the most powerful women in her order; later she was excoriated for her sexuality and her affair with Bartolomea, while other priests and male clergy routinely had mistresses despite their vow of chastity. The men were rarely persecuted for it but Benedetta certainly was, but refused to meekly accept the injustice. She was a feminist long before feminism was a thing.
But Verhoeven seems to be toning down that aspect of her story. Those who appreciate the proverbial “girl-on-girl action” will find plenty to keep them sated. However, some reviewers compare this film to porn – apparently they don’t get out on the Internet much. Highly sexual this may be, but porn this is not.
Efira has been coming on as a powerful actress over the last few years, and this performance does nothing to stem her momentum. She seems destined to become a huge star in Europe (she’s actually Belgian, not French) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood started reaching out to her agent sooner rather than later. She captures not only the devoutness of the character, but the harder edges as well – we are left to wonder if the stigmata is a divine manifestation, or the work of Benedetta’s own ambition – and she makes the character enigmatic enough to be interest, but real enough to be relatable.
Verhoeven does a marvelous job of setting the period, from the clothes to the sets to the historical accuracy – a plague was raging through Italy at the time this was going on, and Verhoeven doesn’t mind showing the horrors of that plague. As a bit of a counterpart, former Art of Noise keyboardist Anne Dudley – who has become a much-sought-after film composer – gives us a beautiful, haunting score.
Basically, if you’re offended by onscreen depictions of sex – particularly between two women – this is definitely not the movie for you. But don’t for a moment think that just because Verhoeven is generous with the nookie doesn’t mean that is all there is to the film. There is also commentary on religion, ennui and attitudes towards women in general and female sexuality in particular. This isn’t Verhoeven’s best work but it is up there, which considering the breadth of his career is really saying something.
REASONS TO SEE: Really captures the period. The score is gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prudish or sensitive might end up offended.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of nudity and sex, as well as some violence, profanity, disturbing images and material that might offend the devout.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the second French-language film for Verhoeven after Elle (2016).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philomena
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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