Benedetta is a historical drama inspired by the life of Benedeta Carlini. Her story serves as a way for Paul Verhoeven to explore religious belief, corruption, and sexuality.
As a young child Benedetta Carlini (Elena Plonka) was a devout Catholic and joined a convent in Pescia. When Benedetta grows up into adulthood (Virginie Efira) her world gets rocked for two reasons. The first is she starts to have religious visions that have a physical impact on her, the second is the arrival of a novice nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) who Benedetta becomes infatuated with.
Paul Verhoeven is a director who needs little introduction. Genre fans know him for making Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, and he has made sexually charged films in the form of Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
He has injected some of his films with religious films. Robocop had religious context, and his unproduced film, Crusade, had a critical and cynical look at the First Crusade. Even at the ripe old age of 83 Verhoeven has lost none of his bite.
Verhoeven has always been a provocative director. Robocop was a damning indictment of Reaganomics, Basic Instinct was protested by LGBT groups and Starship Troopers was criticised for being a fascist film, despite it being a satire on fascism and militarism. Benedetta is a film that would also rile up certain audiences. This was a film where a statuette of the Virgin Mary was crafted into a martial aid.
Benedetta was a film that had three main themes, spiritual experiences, sexual awakening, and the religious institute. Benedetta’s spiritual experiences were left ambiguous: were the experiences real or did Benedetta make them up?
This ambiguity was present at the beginning of the film because Benedetta and her parents got accosted by bandits and she threatens them with retribution from the Virgin Mary. Immediately afterward a bird defecates on one of the bandits. Was it a warning from the Virgin Mary, or just a coincidence?
This ambiguity continued when Benedetta suffered from stigmata and the priest sent to examine her pointed out there were no marks on her forehead. When Benedetta got wounds on her forehead it raised the question were they self-inflicted?
Because of the miracles, Benedetta gains a position of power in the convent and develops a messiah complex. People flock to the convent and see Benedetta as a prophet. She uses this as a way to become the Abbess at the convert and becomes a powerful figure in Pescia.
This ties into the criticisms of organised religion. Benedetta’s ideals were challenged when at the convent. The Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) stated that people needed to pay to join the convent. Religious devotion wasn’t a factor. Benedetta’s father had to pay for Benedetta’s place and later for Bartolomea despite the fact she went to the convent for protection from her abusive father.
The character of The Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) symbolised some of the worst aspects of the Catholic Church. He lived in opulence with his pregnant lover, had a great sense of pageantry, and showed only concern for himself when the countryside was ravaged by the plague. He proved Martin Luthor right,
Benedetta does bear some similarities to the screenplay of the unproduced Crusade. Both stories show people using religious beliefs for their own benefit.
Religious figures in Crusade used the call to action as a method of control, people who joined were looking for land and wealth and even the main character was fighting for self-preservation. The main character in Crusade faked a miracle in a cynical attempt to get on the Crusade and be in a position of power.
The final pillar of the film was the relationship between Benedetta and Bartolomea. Bartolomea acted as the temptress, the woman who awakens Benedetta’s sexuality. This part of the film felt a lot like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, sentential and exploitive due to the sex scenes. And that was what Verhoeven fans would want.
Benedetta was not a film for the faint-hearted or the easily offered. Fans of Verhoeven will get the ultimate combination of his work because it was a historical drama, a sexually charged tale, and a biting commentary about religion.