Perhaps it says something dark about society when a film that features a wooden statue of Mary, Mother of God, being used as a sex toy, as Benedetta does, neither shocks nor stirs. Or, perhaps, viewers can more easily spot blatant, poorly constructed attempts at provocation these days. Whatever the case, Benedetta ends up offering neither titillation nor insight and will likely only outrage those who came looking to be so in the first place.
Evidently, based on a true story, Benedetta takes us to a 17th Century convent in Italy. The abbey has just welcomed the young Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) seeks refuge from an abusive father. Her arrival sparks erotic desire in Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and may or may not push our titular character further into religious hallucinations involving a sword buckling handsome Jesus. A priest’s (Hervé Pierre) insistence that holiness comes through pain and suffering adds further fuel to Benedetta’s intense religious ecstasy.
Before long, Benedetta screams in agony in her dreams and exhibits signs of the stigmata. The wilder her performance of zealotry becomes, the less authentic it seems from the outside. However, her power only seems to grow within the abbey and the surrounding town. Soon, she has unseated The Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) and begins to prophesize that her presence, as the Bride of Christ, shall protect the village from the touch of the Plague.
She and Bartolomea have also begun an affair complete with copious on-screen nudity, oral sex, digital penetration, and the aforementioned religious artifact dildo. The passion seems convincing enough. Still, Efira can’t sell the rapid transition from resisting the more sexually aggressive Bartolomea to an enthusiastic participant to, in one scene, cruelly demanding a hesitant Bartolomea disrobe so this Bride of Christ can pleasure herself to the sight.
Patakia does better with her part, but the scripting by David Birke and director Paul Verhoeven for Bartolomea also makes more sense. The younger woman’s journey is well mapped out and she sells the mix of desire and fear that her lover brings out of her. The screenplay treats Benedetta, by contrast, as a plot device, activating and shutting down aspects of personality with little reason shown or given.
Worse, there’s nothing particularly upsetting in this affair—save for that moment of demanded stripping. One does not write a story with two nuns often naked and having sex with each other without wanting to be a little shocking. However, beyond just the idea of nuns having sex, a violation of their vows, the sex never feels especially transgressive. The same director who gave us Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Hollow Man feels staid here. ‘
It doesn’t read as a celebration of their forbidden sex love either. There’s no sense of “the world says this is wrong, but it shouldn’t be” advocacy of, say, a Brokeback Mountain. So if the movie doesn’t shock and it isn’t here to argue for sexual liberation, well, what’s the point?
Unfortunately, that kind of “you are acting like this now because the plot demands it of you” begins to jump around in the film’s bloody and chaotic climax. Even Rampling can’t overcome that central weakness that has her go from Benedetta’s chief antagonist to a plague-ridden non-believer to a critical player in Benedetta escaping martyrdom. Rampling is great within each distinct aspect, but she can’t make the leaps in logic work.
Leaps of logic again bring us back to our titular anti-hero. Benedetta clearly wants to maintain the ambiguity of the nun’s visions. Are they real? Are they hallucinations? Is she putting on a show for attention? For power?
That’s a fine goal, but either the script or Efira’s performance can’t find a core in Benedetta to ground it all. It doesn’t read as a mystery; it reads as unfinished. The script never gives us enough to be curious about whether she’s faking it. That aspect seems pretty clear from about the midpoint forward. What does remain shadowed is what exactly Benedetta wants. That mystery does not draw us to the character but makes her feel two-dimensional and generic.
I’m inclined to lay that blame on the script as there is a power to Efira’s performance. She has a magnetism on-screen and does seem to deliver on whatever a particular scene is demanding of her at the moment. However, it does never give her an interior life to portray.
So we have here a film that may wish to shock us but doesn’t. That may wish to argue for a more inclusive modern church by highlighting historical failure but failing to connect past and present. A film that may wish to explore faith but seems to have neither reverence nor contempt for the material. Perhaps all it wants is to portray a bit of history the filmmakers found interesting. But, sadly, their work never invites us into that feeling.
Benedetta is in theaters now.