I’m not sure if I think Benedetta is a great movie. But as a late-period Paul Verhoeven movie, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Even though visually it remains barely interesting and the tonal shifts don’t exactly reek with finesse, the film certainly is provocative. Based somewhat on history, Benedetta tells the story of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century nun who, while periodically receiving visions of Jesus Christ that border on the profane, also finds herself entangled in a forbidden lesbian affair. But oddly enough, even with those egregiously blasphemous plot points, Benedetta just doesn’t feel that outlandish (yes I am aware they carve a dildo out of a Virgin Mary statue). I suppose it’s a sign of the times that Benedetta feels so tame; if it had premiered in the late ’80s/early ’90s, for example, we might have on our hands a controversy-of-virtue of The Last Temptation of Christ proportion. But maybe the under-the-radar nature of its limited release also helped keep Benedetta out of headlines.
Regardless of how shallow the film’s provocation seems, though, it still exists to tackle specific gender biases held within religious institutions. Benedetta‘s world is one in which any type of physical pleasure is explicitly forbidden, suffering is not only used for atonement but expected as an everyday means of saving oneself, and the female body is regarded as so sinful the Sisters are banned from even catching a small glimpse of each others’ nudity. Early on, Benedetta is told, “Your worst enemy is your body.” In this world, carnal pleasures are strictly a no-go.
So what does Benedetta do? She manipulates the system. By faking stigmata and other performative acts like speaking in a guttural tone alluding to some kind of holy possession, Benedetta quickly deceives her way up the convent ranks to become the Reverend Mother, the Abbess. Once there, she lets her hair down so to speak and uses her private quarters to explore those forbidden carnal desires with her friend, a worldly and uninhibited young woman whom the convent has taken in for protection. The two women indulge in an ongoing sexual affair, one that transforms Benedetta into less of a curious lover and more of a power-hungry girl-boss. Is this feminism? I guess it is if we consider toxic traits like dishonesty and manipulation as simple means to an end; in this case, it’s a woman ingesting the sour taste of the patriarchal code to retain her power — we’re still left with the venomous price of dismantling the system.
But hey, we are temporally drawn to rebellion — especially if that rebellion is hot. Benedetta and her lover are unbridling themselves from pious restraint, an act within itself so erotic that witnessing the tryst is almost superfluous if it weren’t for our needy curiosity. True, this movie would be nothing if not for exploiting these women, displaying their bodies and desires for the audience to consume and scrutinize. And later, as the women face trial and torture, we can’t help but snidely delight in their comeuppance and persecution. That is to say, we’re addicted to the melodrama of it all.
So here we are with this Audio Fanfiction, a playlist I have built to satisfy our utmost melodramatic cravings for gothic Catholic angst, exploring the dynamic between sexual repression/expression and the consequences of both. Confess and repent, my darlings; suffering is the only path to freedom. ★