(director/writer: Paul Verhoeven; screenwriters: David Birke/based on the book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown; cinematographer: Jeanne Lapoirie; editor: Job ter Burg; music: Anne Dudley; cast: Virginie Efira (Benedetta Carlini), Daphne Patakia (Bartolomea), Lambert Wilson (Alfonso Giglioli, le Nonce), Olivier Rabourdin (Alfonso Cecchi), Charlotte Rampling (Soeur Felicita Abess), Elena Plonika (Benedetta as infant), Jonathan Couzinie (Jesus); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: NR; producers; Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, Jérôme Seydoux: IFC Films; 2021in French with English subtitles)
“A sordid take on the Catholic faith.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It played at the Cannes Film Festival.
The veteran Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct“/”Starship Troopers”), a somewhat scholar on the teachings of Christianity, who always wanted to make a film on Jesus, comes the closest here in this campy but shallow film that’s a blend of religious images with masochism. In one scene an erotic Jesus (Jonathan Couzinie) appears in a dream sequence. It’s loosely based on the 1986 book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown, and is co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke.
This fictitious story is inspired by the real story on the life of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century Italian nun who claimed she had visions of Jesus, was disciplined for being a lesbian, but still managed to cunningly achieve sainthood in her Tuscan city of Pescia.
The filmmaker’s risky tale focuses on Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira, Belgian actress) and her forbidden lesbian affair with the young female novice, her roommate, who was raped by her father and brothers before fleeing to become a nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia, Belgian actress). What’s viewed as even worse for the plague-time Italian Theatine convent than lesbianism, is the erotic religious visions of Benedetta that if revealed threaten to shake-up the Church to its possible doom.
The old school abbess Soeur Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) is convinced that the self-assertive Benedetta, who received her holy orders as a child because her rich parents gave a big donation to the convent, is faking her ecstatic reveries. As an adult, after being in the convent for 18 years, Benedetta displays a stigmata, and because of that miracle gains power. The Abbess gives way to Benedetta, who becomes the new Reverend Mother. The church hierarchy notices and sends there a devil-burning papal representative, Alfonso Giglioli (Lambert Wilson), to check on things.
Verhoeven is a provocateur who playfully presents a sordid take on the Catholic faith, as he seriously mocks the church for its corruption and abuse of power. The naughty film, a Showgirls fun film but without the showbiz gals, offers libertine lesbianism and the tantalizing porn scene of the wooden dildo carved out of a Virgin Mary statue that fell on Benedetta. Though the ultimate sicko scene to reflect on might be the one of a smugly smiling Rampling serenely going into a blazing pyre.
REVIEWED ON 11/29/2021 GRADE: B