Benedetta: A “Provocative” Film that Demythologizes Religion

Relatively recently we criticized Man of God as a film that obscures reality and, by deifying religious feeling, could lead those who adopt its standpoint only to wrong, deceptive paths.1 Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, can in many ways be considered its opposite. It is a film that demythologizes, deconstructs and keenly dissects religion with all its various counterparts, the Church, mysticism, etc. Yet, it does this on a high artistic level, with unshakable realism and persuasiveness, clarifying thus all those things Man of God tried to hide and embellish.

Admittedly, Verhoeven is a somewhat uneven director. Some of his films, such as RoboCop and Total Recall, are commercial, Hollywood type productions, a fact partly damaging the issues they raise. But he is also a director with a keen sense and ability to expose the corruption of the bourgeois world, especially the star system, of which he is a part. Another classical film of his, Showgirls, was one of the sharpest anatomies of the showbiz ever, receiving at its time many unjustified negative reviews. Benedetta does the same thing with regard to the Church and monasticism, not with the aim of countering religion scientifically but of demonstrating its role in real life.

A true story

The story takes place in the early 17th century, a time of papal omnipotence in Italy, when medieval prejudices and institutions were still dominant. It is based on the life of the mystic abbess Benedetta Carlini, who had a lesbian relationship with one of her nuns, Bartolomea. Verhoeven loosely follows Carlini’s biography,2 giving his own version, which becomes a social critique of the time and of our time as well. And while the critique focuses, as we have said, on medieval papacy, it acquires broader, contemporary dimensions.

Benedetta (played by Virginie Efira), a young woman with a religious upbringing, is dedicated by her father, a wealthy Tuscan lord, to a monastery in Pescia. There she begins to have visions, and when during such an experience the signs of crucifixion appear on her body, she is proclaimed abbess by the local bishop, setting aside her aged predecessor (Charlotte Rampling). Meanwhile, Benedetta begins an affair with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a young woman who is raped by her father and brothers and takes refuge in the monastery just to escape her martyrdoms. When Christina, the daughter of the old abbess, who had accused Benedetta of causing herself the signs by self-injury, is sentenced to self-whipping and commits suicide, the abbess secretly watches the girls’ erotic meetings and makes sure they come to the knowledge of the Florentine Nuncio (Lambert Wilson). The latter comes to Pescia and imposes the removal of Benedetta, who, as soon as Bartolomea confesses about their relationship after being tortured, is condemned to be burned on the stake.

Meanwhile, plague has spread in Florence and the Nuncio and the old abbess get infected. In the end, when Benedetta is tied to the stake, the people of the city revolt and kill the Nuncio and his entourage, while the dying abbess, a victim of the circumstances, helps Benedetta. The latter and Bartolomea escape from Pescia, but next day Benedetta announces that she must return, even if this means to be burnt on the stake, because the monastery is her home and there is no life elsewhere for her. In the epilogue we learn that Pescia was not touched by the plague and Benedetta lived until her death in confinement in the monastery.

The main thing is not whether the movie remains true to the original story – which it does to some extent – but the specific point of view with which Verhoeven approaches it and the atmosphere he creates. At every step, religion, the Church and monasticism are revealed as a lie, a fig leaf for the very earthly, selfish pursuits of their servants who have nothing to do with their religious wrappings.

The old abbess proves to be a merchant of faith, who takes care to extract from the rich parents of the girls the maximum possible price for their acceptance in the monastery. When Benedetta’s wealthy father, who is supposed to have dedicated her piously to God, brings her there, we see him haggling hard with the abbess about the owed sum. The local bishop, learning about the marks on Benedetta’s body, decides to support her becoming the abbess, not because he believes in the “miracle,” but because the news will draw attention to his bishopric and help him rise in the hierarchy. The Nuncio, on his part, will react and try to exterminate the heroine for the exactly opposite reason, as he views these developments as a threat to his own power. Even Bartolomea’s brutal father and rapist, joyfully allows her to leave when his pay rises from ten to twenty dinars. In short, money and power are the common goal of all, for the achievement of which religious “faith” serves as a vehicle to some, as theft, cruelty and prostitution serve to others.

In this deceptively pious world, Benedetta is comparatively the more honest person, as she truly experiences her visions and ecstasies, which include a direct communion with Christ and various demons. But even in her case, there is no doubt that the “miracles” are fabricated and she causes her wounds herself. When the marks of Jesus appear on her body, she forgets to make them on her forehead, in correspondence with Christ’s crown of thorns, and Christina, the abbess’s daughter, sees her inflicting them later. Even in the end, when Benedetta shows the crowd the new wounds that have appeared in her hands, supposedly by divine providence, to incite them against the Nuncio, Bartolomea finds the nearby fragment of a vase, which to all appearances has been suitably used for the purpose.

A plausible question is whether the absence of some genuinely faithful priests in the film, such as the protagonist and the nuns in Man of God, violates the realistic representation. After all, in all ages a portion of the clergy cherished a sincere conviction that they represented the law of God, and their deeds and words, even if they diverged, were not in complete disharmony with it, as is the case in Benedetta.

We think not, for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the movie refers to a time when the corruption and fanaticism of the papal church had reached its peak. Throughout the 16th century Rome was steeped in prostitution and the popes lived in luxury, often having mistresses, indulging in intrigue and murder and collecting revenue from the infamous pardons. Pope Leo the 10th had famously said: “Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”3 The next phase, during which the story of Benedetta Carlini takes place, was marked by the Counter-Reformation, the Holy Inquisition (Giordano Bruno was burned on the stake in 1600) and the persecution of witches. All this did not mean a real change of morals, but a reaction to the Lutheran Reformation, through the most obscurantist oppression. Verhoeven justifiably omits the exceptions in order to portray ​​the true spirit of the age.

Secondly, the film does present some pious types, but it turns out they are hopeless in this situation. The abbess’s daughter, Christina (Louise Chevillotte), is one such case, who puts truth above everything else. Christina decides to denounce Benedetta’s fraud not because she does not believe in miracles, but because she requires a true miracle to believe, and she knows that in this case it is a lie. However, she is condemned by her own mother, who has warned her not to reveal the truth and when she does, she denies her, as she believes that acting at that moment will not help getting rid of Benedetta and will harm her and the monastery.
Christina, like the pastor who hears the confessions of the nuns, is a layman figure, and their religious faith, after removing its metaphysical cloak, is nothing more than a naive and immediately unfeasible requirement for purity and authenticity. Christina, however, lacks the hard experience of life, which the resourceful and strong Bartolomea has, with the consequence that her love of truth remains idealistic.

Another question that could be asked is whether Verhoeven is over-modernizing the past, shifting to it problems and experiences of our time. The pace of developments in the movie, e.g., is a bit too fast, in a way more suited to the present than to the Middle Ages. This of course can be explained by the need to include all the necessary episodes and it is true that he tries to highlight the conditions of the time, as in the scene when Bartolomea sits for the first time in her life on a crapper. A more intricate director like Coppola would probably convey more accurately the spirit of the age, and this is also true of recent productions such as The Green Knight that make contemporary allusions in a subtler way. The crucial question, however, as Lukacs used to remark, is whether the creator succeeds in extending those tendencies of the past that lead to the present, or simply artificially loads the past with alien to it tendencies and behaviors of the present. Verhoeven’s more direct approach does not lose the right path, preserves naturalness and has its own merits.

The aesthetic result is greatly helped by the excellent match and natural playing of the actors. In addition, Verhoeven adorns the film with humorous episodes, such as the dialogue between the dying Nuncio and Benedetta,4 as well as some bold love scenes, culminating in Bartolomea transforming a small statue of the Virgin into an erotic aid.

The latter finding may seem blasphemous to some, and it would indeed be if it was inserted arbitrarily, for no real reason. But it allows Verhoeven to intensify the confrontation between the Nuncio and the heroine. In an important dialogue, the Nuncio, after finding the statue, accuses Benedetta of perversion and that her love for Bartolomea violates Christian faith, just to receive by her the answer that in Bartolomea she loves all other people. The discovery of the statue during the interrogations in a “crypt” Bartolomea has opened in the voluminous accounting book of the monastery, makes a strong hint to the lust for pleasure hidden behind all power relations.

Reactions and reviews

With its sharp challenge to prevailing prejudices and conformism, Benedetta was certain to provoke reactions and criticism, but they generally failed to reach its core and confront the issues it raises.

Benedetta has been widely described as a “provocative” film, and it really is. However, its “provocations,” far from reflecting Verhoeven’s personal whim and craving to shock people, bring us face to face with the inhumanity of a historical era, differing only externally and formally from ours.

Although the attitude of the Catholic Church so far has been to keep silent – wisely so because an open condemnation would only add to the strong sense of its hypocrisy that those who see Benedetta will get – fundamentalist Catholic organizations have protested against “insulting Jesus” and the like. Characteristically, during the screening of the film at the New York Film Festival in September, a group of Catholics held placards with slogans such as “We vehemently protest the blasphemous lesbian movie ‘Benedetta,’ that insults the sanctity of Catholic nuns.”5 The site of the eloquently titled “The American Society for the Protection of Tradition, Family, and Property,” presents us with thundering articles on “Why the Movie Benedetta Is Blasphemous And Anti-Catholic.”6 while Russia banned the film.

On the other hand, the film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, received positive reviews from critics, with an 85% acceptance in Rotten Tomatoes.7 Many, however, saw it as a reflection on the relationship between sexual freedom and faith. This dimension does exist, as the weight of erotic scenes suggests. But it is far – even if we accept, which is quite doubtful, that this was Verhoeven’s intention – from being the chief one. This is why criticisms that the film is just trying to scandalize, without having anything to say, are quite erroneous.

This kind of feeling is somehow promoted even by critics in “progressive” sites like Vox. A. Wilkinson, citing a number of recent movies with nuns, finds Benedetta a typical “nunsploitation film” and quite “unsurprising… Nunsploitation movies are salacious, often hypersexualized, and frequently critique the practices, rituals, and authority of the Catholic Church.” Having said that, however, Wilkinson hastens to add there is more in the movie: “Benedetta is not, fundamentally, just a romp about lesbian nuns. It’s about a religious hierarchy filled with people who have very little faith in God but have found in the church some way to access power and standing… Benedetta is also about church politics, fundamentally corrupt and self-serving, more interested in personal gain and decadent living than the slowly encroaching plague and the spiritual well-being of the faithful.”

Why then not focus on what is important in the film and be consumed with dubious comparisons?

In Greece there were quite a number of hostile criticisms and some more objective ones. It is not superfluous to take a look at them.
M. Theodoropoulou makes an extremely disparaging critique:

Benedetta… [tries] to pass as a serious psycho-social critique of blind power instead of a childish troll… Throughout his career, from RoboCop to Basic Instinct and from Showgirls to Elle, Verhoeven has dealt with issues of faith, flesh, power and sex, but here the clumsy attempts at humor, the low budget satire and the superficial clash of the sacred with the insignificant make the film correspond to nothing more than a farce in a schoolyard.

All this could, of course, be true, but it should have been substantiated somehow. Our critic does not bring a single argument, presenting her attacks as self-evident and leaving us in the dark.
A much more serious criticism is made by Chr. Mitsis, yet he stops halfway. Mitsis aptly identifies the element of social criticism that is constantly present in the film, a fact depriving a basis from all kinds of superficial rejection:

If one expects that the film will focus exclusively on the forbidden love affair of the two women and the denunciation of clerical intransigence, he will surely be surprised. Benedetta maintains Verhoeven’s aggressive sarcastic stance on uncontrollable passions and their clash with a strict institutional conformity. Here the latter is represented by all the ‘people of God’, who from the representative of the Pope to the abbess of the monastery bargain economically and politically for each of their spiritual confrontations. In a male-dominated, violent and sick (literally and figuratively) world where everything is sold and bought, Verhoeven does not counterpose two romantic, in love women.8

Having made these valid remarks, Mitsis rebukes however Verhoeven’s “cynicism,” which, he deems, “brings to the fore the instinct of survival and mocks bitterly perpetrators and victims, slowly but steadily beginning to be carried away by his frantic mood for ruthless parody.” Because of this, “the characters slip into the grotesque, the plot culminates in an uncontrollable noisy conflict, psychological moods change in a minute and a subversive, dark satire ends in an unequal parody.”8

Here the critic, in our opinion, misses the point. The cynicism he detects exists indeed in the film. Only is it not a cynicism Verhoeven implants from outside, but – as Marx used to say in such cases – a cynicism that inhabits within the thing itself. As a result, he fails to appreciate in their authentic meaning important elements of the plot and especially the final scene of the film that have nothing of the parodic mood he attributes them. In any case, he gives us a good reason to complete these points.

Benedetta is, in fact, a harsh film, depicting the barbarity of the Middle Ages, and more broadly of all exploitative societies, in order to inquire whether there is a way out for human realization. It is quite reminiscent of one of Verhoeven’s first films, Flesh and Blood, in which two groups of medieval mercenaries killed each other. But while there the emphasis was on individual adventure, here we find a fairly faithful representation of the social forces acting behind individuals, with individual fates being strongly determined by those forces.

The resulting image of religion basically coincides with young Marx’s assessment of religious sentiment: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”9

On the other hand, those critics, such as L. Katsikas,10 who believe Benedetta represents instinct as opposed to religious fanaticism, are quite wrong. Benedetta‘s persistent appeals to close the city walls when the plague spreads –what is left of her ecstasies if their metaphysical vestments are removed– is the voice of reason, even if it comes about by a combination of calculations (her pursuit not to let the Nuncio enter the city) and instinct (her mystical frenzy and the oppressed hedonistic background that lurks behind it). In an age of primitive barbarism, logic cannot be imposed by persuasion, but only by fear and superstition (the comet interpreted as a divine sign), taking the form of divine commands, the violation of which will evoke punishment. Only in this way can the basic norms of behavior be observed, which make it possible for people to live together and, in the given situation, to be saved from the terrible disease. Benedetta’s decision to return to the monastery is a recognition of the little that religion offers to human fulfillment in the prehistory of humanity, but at the same time a demonstration of its inadequacy. And while Benedetta is defeated and subjected to the Church authority in the end, the Nuncio’s violent death and the salvation of the city seem to imply a fundamental historical openness.

While it would be mistaken to carry directly the film’s problematic to the present day, there exist quite obvious implications. It is enough to replace the plague with the Covid pandemic (although the filming preceded it), religious fanaticism and torture with racism and abuse of women today or the rape of children by Catholic priests, to have the feeling that humanity has not progressed much since then and that the root cause of this will be found in the dominant institutions. At the end of the movie the viewer is confronted with the question: “If Benedetta necessarily chooses the monastery from prostitution, can this dilemma be the choice in our times, when a good life for all is possible?”

The uprising of the masses is present in the scene when the crowds attack the Nuncio and his entourage. Verhoeven, who had made in the past interesting films about the socialist movement, such as Katie Tippel, does not ask questions – his material does not allow it – about whether and how such a movement could develop today and become effective. But he shows us the ineffectiveness of all other attitudes, the noblest epitome of which is exemplified by religion. This makes Benedetta one of the veteran director’s most mature and comprehensive films.

*****

  • The writer expresses his thanks to Nikos Christopoulos for his remarks in a discussion about the film.
    1. See Chr. Kefalis, “Green Knight or Man of God?”. Man of God, directed by Yelena Popovic, has been extolled by the Greek Orthodox Church as a model of “Christian ideals” in our times. []
    2. Verhoeven utilized Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. With regard to Carlini’s life, see “Benedetta Carlini.” []
    3. Quoted in “Renaissance Papacy.” []
    4. The Nuncio asks Benedetta if she saw in her ecstasies whether his soul was in Paradise or in Hell and, when she answers “In Paradise”, he opposes her, “You are lying again.” []
    5. See E. Shafer, “Catholic Protesters Congregate Outside ‘Benedetta’s’ New York Film Festival Premiere.” []
    6. L.S. Solimeo, “Why the Movie Benedetta Is Blasphemous And Anti-Catholic.” Verhoeven is vilified in the article because he is a member of a society that views Christ not as God but as a rebel – a view indicative of his strengths and limitations. For the ban on the film in Russia, see, e.g. “Benedetta with Virginie Efira banned in Russia.” []
    7. See “Benedetta (film).” []
    8. Chr. Mitsis, “Benedetta.” [] []
    9. See K. Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction.” []
    10. This assessment leads Katsikas to some extreme judgments: “Paul Verhoeven maintains the pretext of a parable about the dangers of religious and all other kinds of fanaticism and the sweeping, almost cosmogenic call of instincts. ‘Benedetta’ is sure to entertain fans of easy challenges and promises to make a lot of tickets in movie halls. In no case, however, should it get confused with good taste, good cinema and good intentions. It is a childish sadomasochistic spectacle that knows no subtlety and which attacks the sensibilities of the public with the rush of a bull in a glass shop” (L. Katsikas, “Cannes 2021: Paul Verhoeven’s infamous ‘Benedetta’ is the ideal scandal film for those who wanted something like this.”) []
    Christos Kefalis is a Greek Marxist, editor of the journal Marxist Thought. Read other articles by Christos.