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France/Italy 2021
Directed by
Paul Verhoeven
131 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Knowing Paul Verhoeven’s proclivity for the tackily sensational (1995’s Showgirls being the most notorious instance) one’s expectation for his loosely factual story of girl-on-girl action in a 17th-century Tuscan nunnery will be, depending on your point of view on Verhoeven’s oeuvre, high or low. As a member of the latter group I’m happy to say that it’s surprisingly good.

The script was adapted by the director with David Birke from a book by Judith C. Brown called, without any risk of being misunderstood, ‘Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy). As was the wont in those days, while still a young girl Benedetta Carlini is sent to the Convent of the Mother of God. As an adult (Virginie Efira) she claims to have visions and be divinely possessed, even receiving the stigmata, something which stood for a lot of holiness back then. The literally old abbess (a strong performance from Charlotte Rampling, a veteran of many sexually provocative art-house films in the '70s) does not believe her and Benedetta has her removed and herself made abbess. The  former takes her grievances to the corrupt Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson, very effective) just at the time that bubonic plague is raging.  The Nuncio returns with the old abbess to the convent to investigate accusations of charlatanism and discovers that Benedetta had a sexual relationship with a novitiate, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia).

Lesbian nuns are, of course, easy comedic material and Benedetta isn’t entirely free of Verhoeven’s taste for the gratuitous – the prime instance being a wooden statuette of the Virgin Mary whittled by Bartolomea into a dildo for her lover’s pleasure. But the erotic has long been associated with the spiritual (a collective term for Catholic nuns is “Brides of Christ”) and the history of mysticism is littered with examples of the interface between the two (legitimized in Hindu and Buddhist sects as Tantric yoga).

In a more general sense Verhoeven is interested in the truthfulness of claims to religious transcendence. Miracles and visions were common fare in the pre-scientific medieval period. Particularly in conditions of religious fervour they seemed genuine and that belief was enough to produce a self-confirming psychological or psychosomatic effect. Sometimes, however, they were simply snake oil. Verhoeven wisely keeps the questions regarding these matters open, skilfully embedding them in their historical context, as the convent is embedded in the gorgeous Tuscan landscape..

FYI: For a more comedic take on related subject matter see Pedro Almodóvar's Dark Habits  (1983)




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