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by Peter Sobczynski

"Sinema Paradiso"
4 stars

Paul Verhoeven is, of course, best known for directing such controversial films as “Robocop,” “Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers” and “Elle,” works that have brought together sex, violence, lurid storytelling and dark satire into cinematic stews that tend to amuse and outrage viewers in equal numbers. At the same time, he has also spent many years pursuing a side gig as a Biblical scholar that would lead to him publishing the 2007 book “Jesus of Nazareth,” a serious inquiry into the life and teachings of Christ that was borne out of research he had done for a movie he intended to make at one point entitled “Jesus: The Man.” In the past, he has allowed these two interests to commingle in interesting ways—his films have always been filled with religious imagery—but never to the degree that they do in his latest effort, “Benedetta,” a deliberate provocation that takes the real-life story chronicled in Judith C. Brown’s 1986 nonfiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” and transforms it into a meditation of sex, power and greed within the Church via a framework that shares a number of uncanny parallels with, of all things, his still-notorious “Showgirls,” all just in time for Christmas, no less.

At the center of it all is Benedetta, who we first see as a young girl who believes that she has a genuine connection with the Virgin Mary, a belief that she declares to a group of bandits who have stopped her family on their way to take her to a nunnery in Pescia where she is to spend the rest of her life. This may sound ridiculous but when this proclamation is followed by a bird taking a dump on one of the bandits, they sure seem convinced and leave her and her family to their business. “Business” is definitely the right word because as soon as they arrive, it becomes clear that the abbess, Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) in charge is less interested in Benedetta’s devotion than she is in the money that her father will be paying to allow her to stay there. She has hardly been there for a few hours when she stands transfixed before a giant statue of the Virgin Mary that falls on her—she is remarkably uninjured but considering the specific body part on the statue that lands in her mouth, it must be said that the incident left a mark.

When the story picks up years later, Benedetta (Virginie Efria) is still at the nunnery and is now having vivid visions of Jesus, who she sees as a kind of swashbuckling hero who swoops in at the nick of time in order to gorily dispatch those who are against him with a giant sword that fills the screen with “Kill Bill” levels of gore, that are accompanied by what appears to be stigmata. Many of her fellow nuns frankly think that she is full of it—the prophecies that she claims have come from her conversations with Jesus are more self-serving than anything else to them and they are also convinced that her wounds are actually self-inflicted. However, Felicita and her own superiors recognize that having a potential saint in their midst would be very good for business and allow them to gain power and importance within the church as well.

Speaking of visions, a more earthly one abruptly arrives at the convent in the form of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a peasant girl who arrives in order to escape her sexually abusive father and whose eventual admission is funded by Benedetta’s parents as a present for their daughter. From their first meeting, there is an obvious connection between Benedetta and Bartholomea that continues to develop as Benedetta’s position in the nunnery continues to rise until the eventual scene in which the two take advantage of the larger private quarters that Benedetta, now appointed Mother Superior, has been granted to finally consummate their relationship. While the plague rages outside—though Pescia remains mysteriously untouched by it—the secret relationship between Benedetta and Bartholomea goes on until it is finally uncovered and the two are put on trial for their sins.

Although the sex scenes between Benedetta and Bartholomea are the element of “Benedetta” that will inspire the most discussion and controversy—especially regarding the interesting use that the two make of a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that Benedetta brought with her who she first arrived, the courtroom scenes are the ones that get to the real heart of what has driven Verhoeven, both in regards to this film and his career in general—the belief that the sacred and the profane not only should not be separated but essentially have to work in tandem in order to make for a full and satisfactory life. In this context, the sexual element is not only not gratuitous, it is a lot closer to the basic humanity of Christ and his teachings than the empty piety, cruel judgements and naked commercialism that they would inspire in more self-serving people. That this is a rare example of a form of religious inquiry that will almost certainly be appearing before long on the Mr. Skin website only makes it all the more interesting, I suppose.

The other thing that keeps the film from simply being an exercise in button-pushing from a master of the form is Verhoeven’s obvious personal identification with his lead character. Although the film does toy with the question of whether Benedetta’s visions and wounds are real or contrived, her genuine belief in the teachings is never really in doubt and even when she indulges in more earthly pleasures, she sees them as aspects of life to embrace and cherish rather than wicked deeds worthy of nothing but scorn and punishment. Verhoeven has followed this same general belief throughout his entire career and, like Benedetta, he has been publicly scorned and shamed for succumbing to what are perceived as the more basic instincts of mankind by the pious self-appointed gatekeepers of good taste. In recent years, however, Verhoeven has been able to gain some kind of public redemption for the revulsion generated by the likes of “Showgirls” and “Starship Troopers” with the more ostensibly serious-minded “Black Book” and “Elle” without compromising his personal ideals. Whether Benedetta gets the same treatment, I leave for you to decide.

Whatever Verhoeven’s skills as a filmmaker—and they remain as impressive and full-blooded as ever—“Benedetta” is a film that ultimately would not survive without a lead actress both brave enough to tackle all of the considerable challenges brought on by the material and talented enough to make it all work without turning it into some kind of lurid cartoon. In Efira, who worked with Verhoeven in a considerably different role as the conventionally pious neighbor in “Elle” (the kind of woman who would no doubt be protesting the existence of this film sight unseen), it has just that kind of performer—one who is deft enough to embody all the varying and occasionally contradictory elements of the role while still making her into a real person instead of a smutty cartoon. The other highly impressive performance here comes from the legendary Rampling, who might have made for an interesting Benedetta herself once upon a time and whose work as Felicita is fascinating for the way that she resists making her into just a straightforward villain type—although certainly odious, she, in a typically perverse Verhoeven move, is the one character whose motives remain completely clear-cut and open from beginning to end.

Whether one looks at “Benedetta” as a meditation on sex, power and the church or as a piece of nunsploitation so lurid that it makes Ken Russell’s “The Devils” seem almost tame by comaprison, “Benedetta” is captivating and scandalously entertaining throughout and the only thing keeping me from considering it to be top-tier Verhoeven is that it slightly begins to lose its dramatic grip during the extraordinarily over-the-top finale. That said, this is a film that takes a lot of audacious chances throughout and even at the rare moments where they don’t quite pay off, you have to admire the sheer nerve on display. For Verhoeven, it so effectively encapsulates ideas and themes that he has been wrestling with in one form or another throughout his career that it feels at times like a valedictory summation. That said, it is one delivered with such energy and ambition and lip-smacking glee that it will leave most viewers (at least those who don’t run fleeing from the theater clutching their proverbial pearls) eager to see what he has up his sleeve for his next film. If nothing else, it proves that one can make a film that ultimately tells a story with a distinct moral center but is still a hell of a lot of fun at the same time.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34849&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/02/21 21:20:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 London Film Festival For more in the 2021 London Film Festival series, click here.

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