Benedetta stars Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia and Lambert Wilson in prominent roles.
Benedetta stars Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia and Lambert Wilson in prominent roles.

Cannes Film Festival 2021: Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta plots a provocative story

  • Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta is about lesbian affairs in 17th century Italy. It is based on a book by Judith C Brown, which itself was inspired by a true story.
PUBLISHED ON JUL 09, 2021 12:46 PM IST

The world over, the Church has been under fire for a very long time. We have seen this in India, we have seen it elsewhere, and cinema has boldly told us stories about this. Stephen Frears' Philomena (with Judi Dench playing the title character) spoke about how a young unwed Irish woman was forced by nuns to give up her newborn child in adoption to an American couple. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight fictionalised a real event to reveal how some Roman Catholic priests had been molesting children in the Boston area (US). Director Paul Verhoeven's Cannes Film Film Festival entry, Benedetta, pushes the boundaries even further.

The name Paul Verhoeven at once brings to our mind his raunchy dramas. Basic Instinct is one with Sharon Stone – who has often alleged that she was never aware that she would be completely exposed in that 'crossing the leg' scene! Paul's latest outing, Benedetta, is a church-based plot that is bound to provoke a good many. Having battled the rating boards for Basic Instinct and Showgirls, one is sure he has his battle-gear on to face the flak for Benedetta.

In short, the film is about lesbian affairs in 17th century Italy. Starring that brilliant Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia and Lambert Wilson, Benedetta is based on a book by Judith C Brown, which itself was inspired by a true story. In the late 15th century, with plague ravaging the land, Benedetta Carlini joins the convent in Pescia, Tuscany, as a novice. Capable from an early age of performing miracles, Benedetta’s impact on life in the community is immediate and momentous. Benedetta takes a young woman to her convent, and the two begin a passionate affair.

In an interview in Cineuropa, Paul, when asked why he chose to make Benedetta, said: “You don’t know why you are attracted to things or what in your brain makes you want to do a certain project. My friend and co-writer David Birke gave me a book by Judith C. Brown called Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. It was about something really weird and unique and it was based on these notes that a scribe took at the time which are so precise about what exactly, sexually these two nuns did. The people in charge back then were all men and there was a lot of doubt that sexual relationships between women even existed. It was a story that had to be told.”

Quipped about his interest often in gay or bi-sexual characters from Basic Instinct to Flesh and Blood and now Benedetta, the auteur remarked: “I haven’t made it a point. It’s a big percent of the population. Homosexuality is part of life, so it should be a part of our dramas. Why should I ignore that? It’s there. A certain part of the population is bisexual or homosexual or transgender, that’s the reality. I come back to it because it’s a normal part of life.”

He regrets that cinema is now shifting towards puritanism. “I think there’s a misunderstanding about sexuality in the United States. Sexuality is the most essential element of nature. I’m always amazed people are shocked by sex in movies.”

Returning to Benedetta, Paul, in an interview published in Cannes Film Festival brochure, said: “American screenwriter David Birke, who had written Elle (also helmed by Paul), wrote the script, striking a superb balance between religion, sexuality and the Church’s political scheming, which was not easy.”

Benedetta is a church-based plot.
Benedetta is a church-based plot.

“Brown stumbled upon the story while researching another project in the archives in Florence. She opened up a box, and found the minutes of the trial of Benedetta, which took place in the early 17th century. She was impressed and intrigued. It’s a rare document. There are no other known trials of lesbians in the history of Christianity. Also, I was struck by just how precise the trial and the book are in the description of sexuality. In the original document, the clerk of the court was so shocked by the sexual details described by Bartolomea, the nun who slept with Benedetta, that he could hardly write! He left blanks, scratched words out, rewrote them... Bartolomea was very explicit. It really is very interesting. The third aspect that motivated me was that Benedetta was a 17th century woman who had acquired real power, both in her convent of Theatine nuns and in her town of Pescia. Benedetta was famous as a saint and as abbess of the convent. She reached positions of power.”

The movie never says if Benedetta was a deranged mystic or a manipulator or even both. And the work ends on a note of uncertainty.

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Finally, Paul added: “The Church does not prohibit sexual relations, except for members of the clergy. I did not make this film with the aim of attacking the Catholic religion or any other belief system. However, I believe that we humans are, fundamentally, animals, right? We have a body and instincts. Benedetta does not resist the call of the flesh, but why would she resist it? It would be stupid. Basically, human beings were primates. Adam and Eve, the apple, the snake, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—none of that ever existed! I think that knowledge and learning are good things. Science tells the truth, legends tell stories. That’s how I see it. Of course, that comes out in my movie. I show what religion prohibits, especially with regard to sex, but I don’t agree with it.”

Benedetta will not end with Cannes screening; it will be discussed, debated, lauded and ripped apart.

(Written by Gautaman Bhaskaran)

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