George Costanza famously once said, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” Paul Verhoeven’s latest movie, “Benedetta,” may not deal with anything quite so mundane as trying to beat a polygraph test on whether or not someone watches “Melrose Place,” but George’s statement is still fully applicable here.
Based on a true story unearthed and written about by Judith C. Brown, “Benedetta” tells the tale of a 17th century Italian nun, Benedetta (Virginie Efira), who comes to power in her convent following a series of, perhaps fraudulent, claims of both visions and miracles including stigmata. Benedetta also is in love with a novice, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), something which (as you are undoubtedly aware) the Catholic Church frowns upon. As an audience, we find ourselves fully engaged with both of these aspects of the film as they function both separately and together.
In no small part, we spend our time wondering about the truth. Does Benedetta perform miracles? Does she have visions? Is she a liar? Is it some of both?
There are some things that occur in the movie that could be dumb luck, like a brigand getting shat on by a bird after a young Benedetta tells the man he’s doing the wrong thing and will pay. Then there are others that might be more duplicitous, like having a bloody shard of pottery found in her clothes after an incident of stigmata, but there’s nothing definitive in either. That’s the power of the movie, this lack of certainty. Like religion, any answer must be taken on faith.
Beyond that (and where George Costanza potentially comes into it), if Benedetta herself believes that what’s happening to her is really being caused by Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié); if she believes she’s really seeing Jesus in her visions; if she believes her body is being controlled by a higher power and said higher power is stabbing her with something in order to create the bleeding associated with a crown of thorns … it’s not a lie, is it? No, it maybe isn’t the “traditional” understanding of how such things happen, but if it’s true it might still be divine, right? There is no doubt of the opinion of the church on the romantic relationship, but that doesn’t confer guilt elsewhere.
So, Verhoeven creates a film where we simply do not know the reality behind the incidents, but we want to and are kept at the edge of our seat trying to fulfill this desire. The director may play up certain moments of the romance in order to upset one potential audience and cause another to salivate, but “Benedetta” doesn’t need the sex scenes in order to engage the audience.
Simply put, the movie doesn’t simply live in its lack of certainty, it thrives in it. Other parts of the church power structure, including the Abbesse (Charlotte Rampling) and the Nonce (Lambert Wilson), they have very definite opinions and attempt to wield what authority they have for good or ill, but undeniably for personal profit as well. It is not a positive view of the Roman Catholic church at this particular moment in history, and that, too, may upset some. However, history tells us very definitively that the church has not always done the right thing and to deny that is the height of blindness.
Verhoeven crafts the whole of “Benedetta” beautifully and it is cast to perfection. Efira is outstanding in the lead role, commanding the screen and drawing in the viewer in the exact same way Benedetta does with the entire community, both within her convent and the town as a whole. The naked ambition of some of the others, particularly the Nonce, is disgusting, but Wilson imparts this oily sheen to him that makes him as captivating as he is deplorable.
A director who likes to shock and upset and disturb, Verhoeven has certainly crafted this movie in ways that will do just that. The impressive thing is that some of the film acts like a scalpel and other portions like a sledgehammer. The director proves his mastery of image and storytelling once more in this film. We may not know the truth of what is happening with Benedetta herself, but we do know the truth of Verhoeven – the man is an exceptionally talented director who, when he exercises his craft to the fullest, makes wonderful, complicated, engaging movies.
photo credit: IFC Films