As a queer woman raised in the Catholic school system, the premise of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (2022) – a ‘biographical drama’ about a 17th-century lesbian nun affair – immediately hooked me. The Dutch provocateur’s new film, which debuted to a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes last year, promises an irreverent approach to queerness in the Church; it’s a tour-de-force of medieval unpleasantries, kisses in shadowy cloisters, Virgin Mary statues refashioned as sex toys, and headless male ecclesiastics failing to police female desire.
Yet, while Benedetta leaves almost nothing to the imagination, its agenda is no less ambiguous by the end of its two-hour run-time than at the start. Derived from the fairly obscure non-fiction book 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 town in northern Italy, as a child. It fast-forwards to her life as a nun at the age of eighteen, when she develops a relationship with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a woman fleeing her abusive father to whom the abbey offers sanctuary.
Themes of sin, repression, and holy judgement riddle Verhoeven’s film like its characters’ plague symptoms. Unlike recent additions to the sapphic historical fiction sub-genre – think Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Ammonite (2020) – Benedetta should not be classed as a ‘love story’ per se. Overwhelmingly, Benedetta is fixated on the female body as a site of contradiction and power. Its patriarchal objectification is absolute from the start, when young Benedetta is haggled to the convent by her father at a price bargained by the abbess.
Upon her arrival, a Sister demands Benedetta strip and put on an itchy burlap tunic, telling her: “Your worst enemy is your body. Best not to feel at home in it.” In the film, female nudity in the public sphere is always associated with shame and punishment imposed by men; 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 religious logic from the narrative’s get-go. As a child, she conveys an older-than-her-years intuition for society’s indictments of women, a point in the film which Verhoeven exploits both satirically and seriously. At one point, the tunic-pushing nun raises her wooden finger, stating that she wishes her whole body would too become wood to resist temptation. Benedetta innocently counters that this would be entrapping and lifeless, “like a tombstone”.
Yet despite her snide remarks at these institutions, Benedetta is anything but unfaithful. Devout to the nth degree, she believes herself a conduit of the divine, gripped by increasingly intense, vision-induced mania at the same time her honesty is progressively doubted by the abbey.
The question of Benedetta’s holiness hangs over the film without a clear resolution. Are the bloody cuts on her hands, feet, and forehead stigmata – divinely-made wounds mimicking crucifixion – or self-made with broken glass shards? Does she predict the descent of plague upon Pescia, or is it simply feudal society’s poor infectious disease knowledge? Is Benedetta a sinister con artist, or does she truly believe she is God’s mouthpiece? When one answer seems indubious, another rears its head.
In such a way, Verhoeven calls out the indisputability of claiming ‘God’s will’, how it has and continues to exculpate powerful men and institutions of responsibility and guilt. If Benedetta is at all guilty, perhaps it is only of an ability to successfully appropriate the patriarchal religious frameworks that would otherwise oppress her as a queer woman in the 17th century. We may hate her by the end of the film — I almost certainly did — but can we blame her? She does, after all, out-maneouver the Church’s male leaders, who try to burn her at the stake for homosexuality, by convincing the villagers of her holy status.
At the same time, it’s hard not to be suspicious of a film by a straight man marketed as a raunchy lesbian-sex event. Verhoeven also has a thing for insane, blonde female leads (note: Benedetta Carlini, who’s brown-rooted blonde is a little too anachronistic) and a cinematic history of dubious female sexualisation, such as Basic Instinct (1990).
Similar discussions to those around Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) have emerged around Benedetta as a result. Is this Verhoeven’s middle-finger at the Church’s homophobia and misogyny? Or is the male gaze sexualising yet another lesbian love story, capitalising off tired, explicit shock-value?
Like many, over a decade of Catholic education did not impart an acute sense of Christ upon me. Hardly, it compelled my agnosticism. And yet, there is a certain kind of nostalgia to be found in queer desires and acts carried out in secret, encoded as disobedience, by many LGBTQIA+ people whose sexual development predominantly occurred in religious environments. A similar case unfolds for the expression of female sexuality for many girls raised in religious private schools and families. Ultimately, this sentiment only serves the heteropatriarchy, by confining queerness and female seuxality to the private and taboo.
The carnality and sensationalism of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship only upholds this; clothing accidentally slips away, curtains turn translucent in moonlight, and holy statues are carved into dildos. As one reviewer in the New Yorker states; “the sex could have been dancing, could have been fighting, could have been any other kind of physical contact, because I didn’t feel like that film was actually interested in sex as a channel for human connection.”
Yet the passions of faith and female sexuality, and faith and queerness – so often placed in an irreconcilable dichotomy – are also subversively unified. When a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary falls on child-Benedetta at night without crushing her, her first instinct is to suckle its stone teet, conveniently hovering right above her head. In her dreams as a teenager, Jesus Christ is a love interest – a sex object, even – and rides a white horse. Wood is transformed from a symbol for chaste lifelessness into one of sapphic pleasure.
While Verhoven’s moral agenda certainly deserves interrogation, I don’t think Benedetta should be condemned because of it. I exited the cinema unsatisfied, unable to cohere the film’s meaning yet nonetheless felt something there — a sense of victory, a dark peal of laughter, an oblique sun shining in another room. Perhaps this thing was the stirring of queerness from history, which has always existed but rarely been denoted. Whatever the case, we can only hope such films are made from a point of queer experience, not fascination or otherwise, in future.
Benedetta is screening in Australian cinemas from 10 February, 2022.