In Paul Verhoeven’s latest historical film, Benedetta, the living make troublesome saints. Adapted from Judith C. Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Shameless Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film explores the life and ordeals of a 17th century nun who suffered from erotic and holy visions. She was also charged with (lesbian) sapphism and sentenced to death. In the tradition of Black book and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven brings his brilliant and ironic business style to the realm of taboo, attacking the institutional authority of organized religion with playful enthusiasm.
While indebted to a greater legacy of non-sploitation cinema, this film is also purely Verhoeven, mixing sex, violence and fluids in a vicious dismantling of systematic power structures. The film features fart and scat humor, plenty of sex scenes, shocking acts of violence, and pustulating sores. The human body, so central to religious experience – especially within Catholicism – is humbled and sanctified. All shot in the bright, over-lit style of mainstream cinema and pornography, the body is exposed and ripped apart for the hungry eyes of the beholder.
Benedetta is an attractive character. Forged by mental illness, it sits between the sacred and the demonic. When her body exhibits the inexplicable symbols of the stigmata, some believe she is a saint, although many also believe that she self-inflicted her injuries. Apart from her visions, she sometimes seems possessed by an angry spirit that barks insults and commands. Even assuming, as many might have back then, that these were real and true incidents rather than fabrications, where is the line between heaven and hell?
Stories of saints have constantly exposed this tension. While, obviously, many stories are fabricated or embellished, the real question should be where to draw the line between the divine and the terrible? Why was it when Christina the Astonishing was supposed to be raised from the dead, was she later declared a saint? Why was it considered miraculous and not monstrous? While it is more clearly a fraud or an illusion, taken literally, the incident seems more disturbing than beautiful. The supernatural becomes divine only when it is convenient and only in the service of greater institutional power.
It is easy to understand why the martyrs make the best saints in this context. Benedetta, a lively and breathing woman, threatens the hierarchy of the Church. His imperfect humanity contradicts his perceived holiness, and his paradoxical desires expose the impossible aspirations of human experience that are in deep contradiction with religious doctrine. Even though its holiness was absolute, it threatens the power of those who control the Church. If his miracles are real, it exposes the cardinals, the priests and the system as fraudulent. A true miracle poses a greater threat to religious power than any fraud.
The beauty and power of the human body exists in deep tension with suffering. Jesus, often represented on the cross as both beautiful and profane, embodies these tensions well. The line between pain and pleasure is confused and twisted in the central belief system. Suffering returns as the theme of the first moments of the film. When she first dressed in her nun costume as a child, she complains that it is itchy and uncomfortable. He was told, “Suffering is the only way to know Christ. Autoflagellation, bodily injury, and eternal suffering recur over and over again.
Verhoeven cleverly shows how suffering as a central principle of belief has its limits. Closing our eyes to suffering closes us from compassion. This prevents us from helping our neighbor. When an apostolic nuncio (a sort of holy ambassador) goes to the closed city, a plague victim asks for absolution, which is refused with disgust. The same ambassador of Christ seems to revel in the suffering of the beautiful women for whom he is responsible. While not a central issue in the film, there is no doubt that Verhoeven is quite critical of the actions and obsessions of the highest members of the Catholic Church. Their moral failures are not only personal but systematic, reflecting the true values of the doomed institution.
All of these ideas are wrapped up in a brilliant style that seems more suited to Sex and the city or high profile pornography. By turning his back on the manifest seriousness of art, he is able to raise a twisted mirror to the world and the culture he does not care about. At least with the arthouse aesthetic, it feels like you’ve been taken at least a little bit seriously if you’re a target. Verhoeven deflates this idea at close range through his aesthetic choices.
The film has already divided audiences and critics since its first screening at Cannes this year. BenedettaThe brash style and critical ambiguity will not appeal to all audiences. It is a film with a unique and particularly inflammatory approach to organized religion and grandiose moralism that prioritizes image and power over the real good. It’s a wild and provocative film: an absolutely delicious experience.
Benedetta opens its doors in Montreal theaters at the Cinéma du Parc on Friday December 10.
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