Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'Lesbian Nun Movie' Benedetta Is An Intoxicating Cocktail of Truth and Lies

You don't have to be one of the faithful to fall under the spell of Paul Verhoeven's latest

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Image: IFC Films (via 42West)

The tale of Renaissance-era Italian nun Benedetta Carlini has mysteries pouring out of it like blood from stigmata, but its narrative appeal is not among them: Carlini’s clout-chasing, scamming, and queerness imbue her story with a surprising modernism. Look under her habit and you’ll see that despite the four centuries that separate her and us, we’re not so different, after all. It was only a matter of time before someone brought her story to the screen.

That someone turned out to be Paul Verhoeven, the director/provocateur whose flirtation with the absurd has more than a few times led to a full-on make-out session with camp (this is the man responsible for Basic Instinct and Showgirls). In case you missed his name on the opening titles of his indefatigably entertaining Benedetta, Verhoeven reminds you of his presence when, en route to the convent that will become Benedetta’s home, the child’s family is accosted by robbers, and a bird shits on one of their faces as a sort of divine intervention. In the following scene, as Benedetta’s family arrives in Pescia, we see a street performance of a man lighting his farts on fire. This is not five minutes into the movie. From the start, the impish Verhoeven makes it clear that he’s the directorial equivalent of fabric softener on what in other hands might be a starchy period piece.

Verhoeven and David Birke, who wrote Elle, adapted Benedetta from Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. In her intro, Brown recalls stumbling on documents related Carlini’s case while researching at the State Archive of Florence. Carlini’s claims of visions and stigmata led to an investigation from the church. Having entered a convent at age 9, by the time of her first inquiry in 1619, the then-30-year-old Carlini had built a sizable following through her sermons, which she was allowed to deliver (a rarity for a woman) on account of the trances she experienced. A second investigation yielded a revelation from her fellow nun and companion for years, Bartolomea Crivelli, who told authorities that she had sexual contact with Carlini “at least three times a week” for over two years. Crivelli described mutual masturbation with Carlini to the point of orgasm, and described many encounters as having been initiated by force by Carlini. This troubling detail aside, the story retains great historical worth for the simple fact of its existence. Brown writes that at the time, same-sex contact among women was acknowledged even less than among men: “Crimes that could not be named, thus, literally had no name and left few traces in the historical record.” Though it was essentially a side note in an investigation that led to a 35-year prison sentence (more likely a result of Carlini’s monastic status, claims to miraculous favors, and her notoriety than her sexual transgressions), Carlini’s repeated sexual contact with another woman is what makes her story so outstanding and valuable.

In short, there was a lot going on with Carlini, and there’s a lot going on in Bendetta, though the latter has just superficial resemblance to the former’s life, as detailed by Brown. Birke and Verhoeven have crafted a melodrama that frequently teeters on the girl-on-girl delicious viciousness of Showgirls: Benedetta carries herself as superior, gains a following outside the convent’s walls, and some of her fellow nuns tear her down. Woven into the movie are elements mentioned by Brown that do not directly apply to Carlini’s story—a mother/daughter pair of nuns in the covent (a commonality in the face of widowhood), for one thing. For another: Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) crafts a dildo out of the statue of the Virgin Mary that Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has owned since she was a child. This makes her crime of sodomy play as more severe than it was likely taken in real life, not only because of the baldfaced sacrilege involved in defiling such a statue, but because, as Brown notes, “the use of such ‘material instruments’ was for many officials the worst possible sodomitical act.” Benedetta and Bartolomea’s (completely consensual) affair is discovered by the abbess that Benedetta eventually unseats when her claims of visions and stigmata yield credulity from the holy men in the vicinity (Felicita played by Charlotte Rampling). Felicita observes Bartolomea using her Blessed Virgin dildo on Benedetta through a hole in the wall of Benedetta’s quarters. In actuality, Carlini was allegedly observed carving her own stigmata by one of her fellow nuns through a hole in her study door, but in the movie, she tends to carve her stigmata fairly openly. As a child, we see Benedetta praying in front of a statue of a nursing Virgin Mary. After it falls directly on top of her, she cranes her neck to suckle the statue’s breast before she’s rescued by her fellow nuns. Needless to say, there’s no trace of such hilarious foreshadowing in Brown’s book.

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Benedetta is Verhoeven’s movie, first, and Carlini’s story second. Because Verhoeven entertains furiously, there’s a lot here in line with ‘70s sexploitation, especially, of course, the nunsploitation subgenre. Verhoeven, who’s written a book about Jesus, is fascinated by how much like S&M some Catholic rituals look—after Christina (Louise Chevillotte) calls out Benedetta’s blasphemy during a meal, she is made to flog herself in penance before the convent. Benedetta and Bartolomea look on, clearly pleased that a naysayer is getting her due…and perhaps are slightly turned on as well. There’s a similar fascination with the bodily—Benedetta and Bartolomea shit next to each other (after Benedetta asks Bartolomea to keep her voice down, Bartolomea farts, smiles, and says, “That’s allowed, I hope”) and when Felicita visits the nuncio (Lambert Wilson) in Florence to take down Benedetta once and for all, an already lactating pregnant woman who is tending to him squirts her milk in the direction of the nun. These are reminders of the body’s inherent rudeness. If the church has devoted at least some of its time to suppressing the body and its inclinations, well, it’s no match for them—at least, not in Verhoeven’s universe. Carlini may have believed her own visions, or she may have invented them wholly for the sake of power. Brown’s book notes that the convent’s abbess claimed that during one of her ecstasies, a publicity-obsessed Benedetta said, “Why do these ingrates not want my treasure to be discovered? I will make it known to other people on the outside and I will make them come from far away.” It takes no such faith or familiarity with dogma to believe Crivelli’s story of the sexual contact she had with Carlini. The bodily trumps the other elements of Carlini’s story, as fascinating as they all are.

Verhoeven and Birke’s screenplay is uncommonly funny for a candlelit period piece. When Bartolomea enters the convent, pleading to be taken in, the abbess immediately requests her dowry. This was commonly paid by the families of girls and women entering the convent, but tended to be far less than a marriage dowry. “A convent is not a place for charity, child. You must pay to come here,” Felicita says, seemingly oblivious to the irony. Rampling is given a handful of these wry lines, and her abbess is a perfect balance of domineering and compassionate.

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It all ends with a riot in the Pescia town square, which brings the backdrop of the bubonic plague to the forefront. It is an appropriately explosive, entirely invented Verhoevian climax. The director cannot seem to help but add further fantastical detail to Carlini’s myth—post script text at the movie’s conclusion claims that the plague spared Pescia, as Carlini had promised it would to her faithful. This isn’t exactly true—it spared Pescia for a period, but as Brown writes, “in 1631 the plague did indeed strike Pescia, leaving behind a shrunken population and empty houses where thriving families once lived.” Verhoeven’s fictionalizing here and all over Benedetta wraps a story of potential deception in even more layers of it. It’s all in our service. Like his hero, Carlini, Verhoeven understands that to tell a good story that commands attention, one sometimes has to stretch the truth.

Benedetta is featured at this year’s New York Film Festival.