Written by: David Birke & Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Virginie Efira, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau
Achieving a level in one’s life where they are looked upon highly can be tempting for anyone because it’s always good to be seen positively. Every profession has its form and with the Catholic Church, it does not get any higher than actually hearing from the very savior of the religion. In an effort to tell a real story Benedetta lifts the mask of blatant hypocrisy in the Catholic institution and does so in a way only Paul Verhoeven could.
Destined to be a nun, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) gets taken in at a young age in a prestigious Tuscan nunnery. Upon getting older, she begins to demonstrate moments where Jesus Christ speaks through her, which draws the attention of many, especially as it begins to aggravate those with power.
When there’s a film that has Catholics protesting the premiere in droves because they oppose the message and the way it gets portrayed on-screen, there’s a good chance it’s directed by Paul Verhoeven. A director who’s never afraid to show what he feels is necessary to the story and he hits yet another home run in this audacious rebuttal to the Catholic hierarchy and the way it placates its congregation’s biggest desires and fears for the sake of keeping their attention and faith. As much as this serves as an institutional critique, it also highlights a fascinating titular character as we never quite know about the truth in these miracles even when specific characters make their proclamations. We get pulled in for the same ride like anyone else and this narrative sure makes for a titillating and entertaining journey.
One aspect that most intrigued me of this film came from its way of navigating the politics inside a nunnery. Typically seen as humble figures who devote their lives to Christ without any of the adulation given to their male counterparts, priests, they usually get brushed off to the side. Seeing the ways they continually get humbled and are expected to act and then witnessing the turn Benedetta takes in her particular journey, it demonstrates what happens when a woman wants to have a level of ambition as the other men in the same congregation. This mostly gets seen in the way Benedetta goes head to head with the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Speaking niceties until they can find a way to stab each other in the back.
On top of everything else, you have Benedetta’s sexuality, which obviously is frowned upon and must be done in secret. It certainly becomes an issue that gets dealt with in the feature, but the way this film utilizes this aspect of the story only further adds to the characterization of Benedetta in the dynamic she builds with her eventual lover along with everything else she builds in this grand mystique. The love scenes shared between them definitely get displayed in a very European style and that’s before a particular toy addition makes its way into the narrative if you know what I mean.
The element that never gets lost and certainly what makes for a Verhoeven film is the intentional moments of humor injected into the story. If taken as a typical biopic, everything in this story could have been pretty depressing to sit through because lamentable things do occur, but there are several hilarious ones as well. I mean, the scene where a snake appears cannot necessarily be considered a laugh riot but it certainly intentionally causes a chuckle, which certainly goes a long way considering the more serious scenes occurring throughout the feature. Even with the many tongue-in-cheek moments of the feature, the criticisms it has for the institution of the Catholic Church never gets lost in the shuffle, especially considering this story took place at a time when the bubonic plague wreaked havoc on the population.
Combining the spread of the plague and how it made people cling to religion even more as a way to seek salvation, it makes the blatant hypocrisy stand out even more, which certainly opens the door for the notoriety Benedetta could achieve through her miracles and supposed connection to Christ. The film certainly did not hold back in showing the adverse effects of this horrible disease leading to some incredible makeup work but it all culminates in this perfect storm and ultimately contributes to this being such an entertaining experience.
One thing I can definitely thank this film for is introducing me to the work of Virginie Efira. It’s a crime I have not watched any of her other performances but she absolutely commands the screen here. From presenting the more naive side of the character at first all the way to what she eventually becomes through her action, she portrays it all absolutely perfectly. She does not miss a step in this performance and goes completely with the ebbs and flows with what Verhoeven asked from her. Meek in some instances and then a force not to be reckoned with later, the entire trajectory of the narrative would not work if not for what she does as Benedetta. This only has inspired me to seek out more of her work, which serves as yet another positive testament to the greatness of this film.
Benedetta will undoubtedly get a certain population of people mad, but after all, it’s what makes cinema such an incredible art form to take in. This feature pretty much delivers on everything it promised and then some by having a fierce leading performance, striking criticisms, and thoroughly proving to be a fun time at the movies. One to definitely appreciate as it introduced me to an absolute star in Virginie Efira and brings back Paul Verhoeven, who has been away for far too long.