Exploring female sexuality and faith, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta turns what could have been a stuffy dirge of dogma into one of the best films of the year.
Benedetta stands on the performances of its leads. Virginie Efira as Benedetta exudes so much strength throughout her performance; it’s easy to fall under Benedetta’s spell because of Efira. When caught in the worst of her hallucinations, Benedetta verges on the side of something righteous; to exemplify these moments, Efira’s voice deepens and her face becomes almost twisted, as if possessed by the higher forces she claims to see.
In Benedetta’s quiet moments, namely when she’s with her lover Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), the real-life 17th century nun takes on a more motherly side, with Efira’s features softening to become more welcoming and innocent.
Charlotte Rampling, who plays the convent’s abbess, also turns in an outstanding performance. Caught between her religiosity and entertaining the delusions of one of her students, the abbess must confront the possible truth of Benedetta’s claims that she sees Jesus. Rampling takes us from an authoritative figure to a grieving leader quite seamlessly, and the unpredictable tension between her and Benedetta is one of the highlights of the second half of the film.
The Catholic atmosphere of Benedetta sometimes sends it into horror movie territory—see the aforementioned times when Benedetta seems to be possessed. The plague is a large part of the back half of the film and is used to showcase Benedetta’s potential status as a saint. But when the film explores her connection to Jesus, Verhoeven switches to a comedic tone. The scenes in which she’s hallucinating a white, action-movie Jesus are hilarious, but Verhoeven is able to expertly weave the horror and comedy tones together, so one can ground the other before either gets too carried away.
Verhoeven deftly handles the film’s blasphemous nature. Consumed with the thought that she’s the wife of Jesus, Benedetta hardly stumbles over her attraction to Bartolomea. It’s a steady romance that unfolds between them, put on the same pedestal as Benedetta’s literal love for the cross. While other, higher authority figures within the church would obviously take issue with the women’s activities, Verhoeven makes clear that Benedetta, arguably the most religious and devout of all the characters in the film, sees her love for Bartolomea and Jesus as equal. It’s a refreshing take on sexuality and religion, where one of the characters involved holds the moral authority over the men of the church.
Held together by the conviction of its characters, Benedetta is a delightful, erotic exploration of power, manipulation, and love. Because it’s based on actual events, the ending leaves more questions than answers, but the film’s strong sense of self and belief in its direction makes it easy for viewers to buy into the possibilities of faith, especially with Saint Benedetta around.
Benedetta is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.