Every time I remember a new factoid about this awesome movie I wil add it to this post.
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I am entranced by this movie, partly because I was raised Roman Catholic, from baptism to parochial school, communion (Eucharist), catechism classes, mass (Liturgy) confession, and confirmation. What all that means is that: I am in Lifelong recovery from the devastating effects of Catholicism. Oh, and the other part? I’m a lesbian.
For this Blog Entry, I will look at Faith through the lens of theatrical absurdity and ambiguity.
Paul Verhoeven’s French-language Benedetta, a film about Lesbian Nuns gives the viewer theatrical absurdity and ambiguity in spades, in a film that opens with a young Benedetta (Elena Plonka) being taken by her parents in a carriage to join a convent.
The family comes under attack from armed soldiers on horseback – one of whom snatches a golden necklace from Benedetta’s mother (Clotilde Courau) – that’s when little Benedetta boldly intervenes, warning the soldiers that if they do not return the necklace, the Virgin Mary will bring down a curse upon them. Moments later, a bird defecates on one of the soldiers, and with a laugh they return the necklace.
You shouldn’t go into this movie expecting an all out lesbian sex festival, because despite the photos on this post there aren’t many lesbian sex scenes.
However, there is foreshadowing to Benedetta’s lesbianism in the scene where a young Benetta lay trapped under a large statue of the Virgin Mary that fell on her. Apparently, one breast was exposed on this statue (There were never any statues with wardrobe malfunctions when I went to Catholic school,) pinned under the statue of Mary, that young Benedetta lifts her head up and tries to suck on the nipple before being interrupted by the nuns who came to investigate the crashing sound.
The full-on lesbian sex that does occur is INTENSE and…Oh My..a Nun in sexual climax, shouting Jesus Christ! WHAT?!!
So you may as well settle in with a nice cool drink, cozy T-shirt, comfy sweatpants, and warm slouchy socks because the movie is over 2 hours long (2:11:00), and that’s because nearly an hour passes before there is anything even remotely resembling lesbian sex occurring.
In all its ambiguity, the opening scene of Benedetta is symbolic of what will follow. It is unclear whether this precocious, sharp-witted girl has served as a conduit to bring down divine wrath against her persecutors, or she has merely engaged in an act of opportunistic theater – and that ambiguity will continue for the rest of the film, as the viewer is asked to determine whether Benedetta is saint or sinner, Jesus’ chosen wife or charlatan. Wait!! “Chosen Wife?”
I thought that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ chosen wife? And, why is it that the Mother of Christ and a whore have the same name? See what I mean? What do you mean, you don’t? Well, keep reading because my disdain for the Catholic church becomes clearer by the end of this post.
The first thing Benedetta will see when she arrives at the nunnery in Pescia, Tuscany, is a bawdy actor on a wooden stage outside the convent building with a torch to deter men in skeleton costumes from taking him. Utter Absurdity.
Then (nearly twenty years later,) we see Benedetta (Virginie Efira,) as a young adult nun having a vision of Jesus, as she is herself is now on stage playing Mary (Which Mary?) in a Passion play.
When an ambitious Provost (Olivier Raboudin) conspires with the rather less enthusiastic Abbess (Charlotte Rampling,) a Mother Superior (here as in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune) to present Benedetta’s further visions and episodes as divine miracles, they do so less out of any real faith in Benedetta’s blessedness than as a political maneuver to help put Pescia on the map.
Everything is theatrical, a more contemporary performance for the eyes of those within and outside the convent’s walls.
In a confined world where women exercise very little freedom or control over their own bodies, Benedetta’s wounds and stigmata, whether heaven-sent or self-inflicted (most likely the latter,) are empowering – and as Benedetta becomes a figure of worship to the townsfolk and is elevated to the role of Abbess (displacing Rampling’s Felicita), Benedetta can for the first time use her public profile to lead the town in measures to keep out the plague – while herself indulging in the sexual pleasure that the younger, more worldly novice Bartolomea (Daphne Pataki) brings to her with fingers, tongue and a dildo (whittled blasphemously from a statuette of Mary). Well, Lawdy! Clutching My Pearls.
A fun scene is illustrated by the photo (right) Benedetta has stripped for bed and while she is in the bathroom, Bartolomea throws Benedetta’snightgown on the floor so the latter will need to enter Bartolomea’s viewing range while still naked in order to retrieve the item.
The Church is notorious for its intolerance of any threat to patriarchal norms, Benedetta’s personal liberation, not to mention her charismatic leadership, look a lot like heresy – and heresy risks being punished with death by fire or, as in the real Benedetta Carlini case, imprisonment for a long, long, long time.
This film set in 17th-century Italy is, as opening text declares, “inspired by real events.” Verhoeven and David Birke’s screenplay is based on the life of the nun Benedetta Carlini, drawing on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 historical study: Immodest Acts (although omitting the book’s more sensational subtitle: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy).
Which I first learned about as an attending freshman at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley Ma.
Of course, Benedetta is also greatly influenced by “nunsploitation”, a now largely passé genre whose key films once included Ken Russell’s The Devils. I watched; The Devils over the weekend, very violent indeed,) and Domenico Paolella’s Story of a Cloistered Nun and Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls and whose stock and trade were Sapphic sex, flagellation and torture.
This is where I depart with those who claim that Bartolomeda betrayed Benedetta. She didn’t, she was being TORTURED By Nuncio (The Provost). But, ultimately, it was Bartolomea who saved Benedetta from the flames of the Provost’s Iniquity.
Benedetta is anti-clerical, exposing the Church’s sexual hypocrisies, as well as its greater interest in extorting money for itself than in helping others. And, Unfortunately, 100’s of years later not much has changed. The film also explores the church’s heinous assault on women as male church officials subject nuns to torture in an effort to extract information.
As for faith, viewers are invited to bring their own and to determine for themselves to what extent Benedetta is real mystic or holy fake (Clue: NONE of it was real, because Religion is Fake, based on a series of false beliefs, established through lies created by men, intended to solely benefit men), and this is reinforced by what Batolomea finds, after her and Benedetta escape to the abandoned building (a shard of broken glass).
A Good Woman Is Hard To Find
As Benedetta’s partner, Bartolomea was a solid lover, who stood by her woman to the end.
I was disappointed that Benedetta chose to return to the church after all that she and Bartolomea had been through because Bartolomea had been banished from the convent, and Benedetta was certain to face wrath upon her return to the convent, and that is exactly what happened,
For penance, Benedetta was forced to live a cloistered life, living quietly without involvement in the normal busy daily activities of the convent, and even though Benedetta was allowed to dine with the other nuns, she was allowed only if she sat on the floor. Trust me, if Bartolomea had money, they would have permitted her to stay. If you remember: Benedetta’s father was steadily supplying them with goods or money, on an annual basis per his agreement with Abbess Felicita.
In fact, Benedetta’s father also paid for the convent to initially take in Bartolomea (Who he gifted to his daughter Benedetta for her birthday). See, I catch EVERYTHING!
Nuns are some mean-ass B!tches for sure, and I remember a yardstick being slammed on my desk just for turning and smiling at another girl in class, because she did something cute and/or funny.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that, I understood that life in the convent was the only life Benedetta knew. So despite Bartolomea wanting to continue her relationship with Benedetta, the unknown proved to be too much for the latter: A woman who was dealing with some serious Mental Health issues (she was Bat-Sh!t Crazy!) that even being ‘shielded’ by ‘God’s spiritual armor proved not to be enough to provide the emotional and spiritual courage required to face an unknown world that freedom from the church, offered.
Nonetheless, Benedetta still got the last laugh, when she became Catholicism’s 1st Lesbian Saint, and I won’t give e a fuck how much that fact is disputed.
So, To all the Gay and Lesbian Catholics, CONGRATS.
I Felt a sense of mmense Empathy For Bartolomea, leading me to imagine a scenario where everything worked out for her.
FilmTheRightThing wrote it best:
I enjoyed the movie Benetta a hell of a lot more than Saint Maude, and BTW, the cinematography was brilliant, pastoral, sublime scenes reminiscent of works by great Italian painters. A-