- CANNES 2021: Religion, power, manipulation, miracles and stigmata, truths and falsehoods are all on the ambiguous, intelligent, black humour-filled agenda of Paul Verhoeven’s excellent film
"This convent has always broadened the scope of what is possible". A huge fan of positioning his immense filmmaking talent right at the point between paradise and hell, on the blurry line between truths and falsehoods, surface and in-depth readings, light entertainment and heavy lines of thought, Paul Verhoeven has had the time of his life making his latest opus Benedetta [+see also:
film profile], which was unveiled in competition at the 74th Cannes Film Festival where it was eagerly awaited owing to the sulphurous nature of its subject: the adaptation (by the director and David Birke) of Judith C. Brown’s book: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.
Over 35 years have passed since the filmmaker last travelled back through the centuries (to 1501, via Flesh and Blood, when the plague was already looming), and it’s now as an accomplished master of the 7th art that the "Flying Dutchman" is travelling to Tuscany in the 17th century, and to the Théatines Monastery in Pescia, to follow in the wake of Benedetta, a child who was offered to God by her wealthy family (an exchange firmly negotiated by the abbess played by Charlotte Rampling). Very pious and utterly convinced of the “magical” powers of faith, the newcomer immediately causes a stir when a statue of the Virgin Mary inexplicably falls before her as she prays. But as her superior stresses: "miracles aren’t worth the trouble they bring". And she’s not far wrong…
18 years later, Benedetta (Virginie Efira, who literally radiates in this role) enters into a whole new dimension, assailed by mystical visions ("I saw Jesus, he came to me. I’m his wife, am I not?") and irresistible feelings of attraction for Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), an incredibly bright, young woman alleged to have suffered incestuous abuse, who hails from the lower classes and who has been taken in by the monastery. From doubts ("how do I know what’s real and what’s not?") through to distress, from states of trance through to rapture, Benedetta soons develops Christ’s stigmata on her skin, right before her companions’ eyes, and she starts to prophesise, all the while embarking on a secret, torrid affair ("Good God! Sweet Jesus!") with Bartolomea. Seduced by the prospect of an influx of pilgrims, the provost (Olivier Rabourdin) hands full power over to Benedetta, but a comet makes the sky glow, a nun (Louise Chevillotte) commits suicide, the plague is creeping dangerously closer, and the nuncio (Lambert Wilson) is arriving from Florence in order to pass judgement on Benedetta, who is "accused of blasphemy, heresy and bestiality"…
"Extraordinary accusations require extraordinary evidence". And a film on a subject as hair-raising as this likewise required real skill in order to slowly unveil the layers of this story, which makes The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese look like a sweet, apocryphal read-through. Women’s right to do what they want with their bodies and to occupy dominant positions of power is naturally at the heart of Paul Verhoeven’s message, which he divulges in his usual insolent, seriously funny and perfectly portrayed manner (without ostentation, aside for the scenes featuring intentionally offbeat, mystical visions). As for the strictly religious aspect of the story, in terms of the truth or the falsehood of Benedetta’s visions, and the level of manipulation involved in this (consciously or otherwise), this very clever filmmaker is careful not to say either way, leaving viewers entirely free to make up their own minds and revealing yet again the many expertly wielded resources available to this unique (outstanding) and fascinating filmmaker, who’s uninterested in whether or not he’s pleasing everyone, but unlikely to leave any viewer unmoved.
(Translated from French)
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