“masterful direction/writing of Verhoeven”
THE "IMDB" PREMISE:
"A 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. She is assisted by a companion, and the relationship between the two women develops into a romantic love affair."
OUR [TO THE POINT] REVIEW:
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Paul Verhoeven, the director of Elle, Showgirls, Basic Instinct, and Robocop would be the one who chose to adapt a biographical account of two nuns who form a lesbian relationship in the 17th century.
The film starts out by showing a young Benedetta Carlini being escorted by her wealthy parents to the Theatine Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia Italy. Benedetta's father is making good on his pledge to God, explaining to the Abbesse, Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) that his daughter had almost died. But by a miracle, God saved her. The Abbesse has heard this similar "miracle" story several times before, but nonetheless she appears to act interested. Countless parents apply for their daughters to be selected as a bride of Jesus, as the Convent describes it. But as the Abbesse quickly makes clear. Only three people will be selected. The quickest way to secure a selection? Money. Or “donation”, as the Convent would have it appear. Shortly after this, Benedetta is accepted and taken in, where she is quickly being taught the ways of the Convent.
There's a scene where Benedetta, walking along one of the Theatine Convents hallways, stops and prays to a breast-exposed statue of the Holy Virgin Mother Mary. It suddenly falls on her. It doesn't frighten her, instead she quickly starts licking the statue's breast, almost unaware that she should be injured and frightened. Nuns start walking in and notice the child pinned by the large statue and quickly help her while also noticing that she is uninjured. A miracle? Perhaps.
This event is where the start of Benedetta's yearning for being some form of prophet, as well as her sexual interest in women, begins. It's an extremely effective and well written opening. Showing us that she didn't suddenly wake up one day deciding to be a prophet of God. Nor did the attraction to women and sexual intrigue. It's been rooted since a young age as we see. But how will it sprout is the question, and what are the consequences of tending that?
18 years later we see that Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is having vivid visions and dreams of Jesus Christ. To her they appear as if it were in the flesh. In my opinion the film never gives you a firm answer on whether she is actually seeing this, or if she is simply acting out, laying the groundwork to become the next prophet of God. But the explanation isn’t important, which is one of the elements that I loved about the film. What's the point of trying to answer or show whether it's believed to be real or not? If it were shown and believed to be, would you really believe it anyways? Probably not.
Shortly after this she encounters Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) an emotionally childlike young woman who is trying to escape her abusive father. The relationship between the two quickly unfolds as it's apparent they both have a love/lust for one another, experiencing the sins of the flesh the Convent soo forbids. I went into length about the opening of this film because I wanted to detail how much I appreciated the way this film subtly or maybe not so subtly foreshadows the events to come.
What we get from Verhoeven's film is that he's not taking this story so intensely serious that you're to believe this as a purely fact driven account of what actually happened. There are several moments scattered throughout, that are downright purposely satirical, possibly blasphemic, yet also showing a form of respect or devotion to Christianity. It sounds like it shouldn't work, yet it pulls it off. It helps that the cast of actors are giving top notch performances; especially the three leads of Efira, Rampling, and Patakia. The realistic look of the cinematography, exquisite set and costume design, and the masterful direction/writing of Verhoeven all lead this to be one of the better films of 2021.