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'Benedetta' addresses huge theological concerns, with the addition of sex and violence

Guy Ferrandis
SBS Productions

Benedetta tells the story of the real-life 17th-century Italian nun, and possible mystic, Benedetta Carlini. In the film, she enters the convent as a girl, and soon after has a statue of the Virgin Mary fall on her, which she takes as a divine proclamation that the Virgin wanted to be close to her. We then pick up a few decades later, as she’s begun to have ecstatic visions of Jesus, who is sometimes a lover, sometimes a fighter. And eventually she receives the stigmata, witnessed by the young novice Bartolomea, with whom Benedetta takes up a passionate love affair.

The film covers a lot of conceptual ground, addressing church politics and power dynamics, especially regarding women in the church, as well as the possibilities and pitfalls of true devoted belief, and sexual attitudes and restrictions—when the Church comes to investigate Benedetta to see if her experiences are legitimate miracles or manufactured blasphemy, they learn of her affair with Bartolomea and almost can’t even conceive of the reality that two women could have a physical relationship.

But before you think any of this is some stuffy meditation on spirituality, know that it’s directed by Paul Verhoeven, of RoboCop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers fame. Verhoeven doesn’t do boring, and Benedetta is not just filled with heady ideas, but also with heated sex and bare bodies, blood and gaping wounds, manipulation and intrigue. Even so, Verhoeven does an excellent job including these while still showing some restraint. They’re lurid, and occasionally even titillating, but not often overly exploitative. Now, this is all relative to Verhoeven’s other work, not to your average filmmaker, but it’s easy to imagine the version of this he might have made 30 years ago would have been rather different, certainly wilder, and probably not as good. Still, as someone who actually does like to contemplate huge theological concerns while watching ponderous, demanding films, I have to say it’s nice when you throw in some sex and violence, too.

Benedetta is available on VOD.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.