Benedetta Carlini certainly led an intriguing life. Go through her Wikipedia page, and you will find more fascinating information than just the fact that she was a lesbian nun who had sex with Sister Bartolomea. For instance, she apparently frightened a black dog with her screams during her childhood. I wish I had been alive during this period in history to see Benedetta’s spiritual encounters. Perhaps then, I could have formed a definite opinion regarding their authenticity. Or maybe, it would have been incomprehensible to me, as it was to countless others.
As far as Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (2021) is concerned, it doesn’t tell you whether the title character (played by Virginie Efira) has an actual connection with Jesus or if she is faking it. The movie vies for both sides. It gives you miracles in the form of a young Benedetta coming out unharmed after being crushed by a statue of the Virgin Mary, while the contradiction comes from her injured head, which conveniently bleeds right after Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) points out that her head lacks the wound made by the crown of thorns. There is also broken glass on the floor, leading Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte) to believe that Benedetta injured herself on purpose.
The convent in Pescia is a holy place, but it’s not entirely removed from corruption. Abbess Felicita’s money-minded nature becomes apparent through her conversation with Benedetta’s father during the admission process. This convent is a place for sheep, as intelligence here is not favoured (one of the nuns even warns Benedetta that it can be dangerous). So it’s not surprising when Sister Christina’s protests against Benedetta fall on deaf ears. She is not only going against a holy superior but dares to adhere to logic.
The Lord is Benedetta’s shepherd, and in this exact form – complete with sheep – he appears in one of her visions. A few moments later, an army of sheep enters the convent’s walls, but they are not accompanied by Jesus. Instead, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is seen trying to escape from the clutches of her cruel father. In desperation, she says lines like, “I love Jesus” and “I want to serve God.” In reality, she merely wants to escape the hell that is her home. If she were in a shop, as opposed to the convent, she would have shouted, “I love customers, and I want to serve them.” All Bartolomea wants is peace and happiness. She has feelings for Benedetta and awakens the desires within her. The young Benedetta might have kissed the breast of the Virgin Mary instinctively, however, when she accidentally touches Bartolomea’s chest as an adult, she is overcome by feelings that have been far removed from her reality. Bartolomea goes as far as carving a sex toy out of a wooden Virgin Mary statue to please Benedetta. In a patriarchal environment that denies that two women could develop feelings for each other, how can Benedetta and Bartolomea be pardoned? The former is ordered to be executed, and the latter is expelled from the convent.
But during the execution, something happens, and we again return to the central question: Does Benedetta really share a bond with Jesus, or is she just manipulating everyone? Verhoeven has no clear explanation because he doesn’t want to give one. This story is engaging and fun due to its vagueness. Verhoeven keeps the lines blurred and wants us to be fascinated by the fact that someone like Benedetta existed at all. She was either being honest or was skilled enough to deceive by emulating a man’s voice. She could have been mentally ill too. One can form many theories but can’t arrive at the truth. Efira’s performance carries this fuzziness. As Benedetta, her enthusiastic gestures and sweet speeches make a part of your brain interpret it all as fraudulent behaviour. The other part, however, considers her earnest face and notices how her words turn out to be true after all (the plague did spare Pescia).
While most characters remain constant until the end, Abbess Felicita undergoes an emotional transformation. She dutifully fulfils her role and is aware that the politics of the religious institution only serves men. Hence, she warns Sister Christina to not go against Benedetta as the men in power have decided to recognize her spiritual claims as valid. Ultimately, she realizes that even being subservient is futile and doesn’t guarantee a ticket to heaven.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.