When Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary came out in 1985, the Catholic Church was so upset they talked about it in my little church in Ellwood City and I’d never heard of Goddard before, so thanks for using indignation to make me discover art. In fact, I’d already been turning to the films rated “O” by the Pittsburgh Catholic as films to hunt down, like Dawn of the Dead, Carrie, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural and many, many more.
What does is say when Benedetta is beamed directly into my living room and presents a take on religion that seems to claim that it can exist hand in hand with sexuality and not a single protest happens? I demand more shock and upsetness!
Well, The American TFP — as well as other Catholic groups — did protest and it was banned in Singapore, but in the 80s, they would have been crying at the altar over this.
Benedetta Carlini was born into a family that seemingly led her into the life of Catholic mysticism, living a childhood filled with devil dogs that attacked her and nightingales — the symbol of carnal pleasure — singing at her command. Her family may have been too poor to pay the dowry — yes, Brides of Christ were literally brides then — and she finally joined a smaller ascetic order of sisters, where a statue was said to have fallen on her as she prayed to it.
In 1614, Benedetta’s life changed as she began to see visions of Jesus, who would battle snakes, scorpions and boars to protect her. The priests believed that she was either mentally ill, being consumed by demons or meeting the Divine, but leading to the former, even when she grew sick for two years and then had the visions return in 1617.
Now, instead of Jesus, she was being attacked by a handsome young man who attacked her with chains and swords, demanding that she leave the monastic life. These visions told her that the Church could not save her soul. A year later, as there was a parade through town, she went into a trance where Mary gave her two angels to guard her and she could see Saint Dorothy. Three months later, she received the Stigmata and as a result, she was one of the few women — if any to be honest — able to give sermons within the Catholic Church.
On March 21, 1619, one of the lead priests summoned Benedetta and told her: “Today is the day of St. Benedict, your saint’s day, go in ecstasy at your pleasure, I give you permission.” The next vision she recieved would be Jesus taking her heart and returning with a new one in three days for her. Nuns who felt her heart said that they could not detect it within her body. To maintain her pureness, Jesus ordered her not to eat meat, eggs and milk products and not to drink anything but water. And maintain her spiritual purity, the Son of Man assigned her a guardian angel, Splenditello, to let her know when she was sinning.
On May 27, 1619 — a Feast of the Holy Trinity — Benedetta claimed that she was married to Jesus himself, as others heard her speak in a different voice. Now, here’s where things get interesting. As stated before, women were to be kept silent at this time and most of all, quiet within the Catholic Church. By having these visions, she was able to have power, agency and voice.
She was investigated by the church multiple times, supposedly died and was resurrected, then was accused of being possessed. Her parents were also said to be demonically taken at some point in their lives and it was also claimed that she was avoiding the diet Jesus had given her by eating salami and Cremonese-style mortadella. More damaging was the discovery that she was causing her own spiritual cuts and wounds, as well as sleeping with a fellow nun, Bartolomea, acts that her guardian angel would say were not a sin.
No one is sure how Benedetta was punished, but the town of Pescia revered her even as she was kept within the convent for the rest of her life.
Basing his movie on Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown, director Paul Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke offer no easy answers. We do see the striking visions of Jesus that Benedetta is given, but it’s left to interpretation if what she sees is the madness of the divine. Virginie Efira is quite striking in the way that she can appear at once in charge and yet be pulled and pushed by the whims of God and man.
The director would not make this movie with the writer who started the project, Gerard Soeteman. He was not involved in the rewrites and filming of the movie due to his growing dissatisfaction with the director’s emphasis on sexual content. Soeteman saw Benedetta as being concerned with a woman’s struggle for power in a male-dominated world, but was disappointed by how Verhoeven had instead concentrated on making a nunsploitation movie.
I was intrigued by the stories of the other women in this movie, as Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) has been the leader of the order with power that exists only inside the walls of their home. Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) has left an abusive family and sees in Bendetta a partner to change her life and feels left behind — and is permanently damaged as a result of their relationship — as her lover’s power changes her existence.
For a movie that has a budget of every nunspolitation movie ever made all added together, this stays somewhat classy — I say that in full knowledge that a statue of Mary is carved into a phallus — and presents a world where its heroine can achieve both spiritual and carnal ecstasy. This idea remains incendiary two millenia after the church began. It’s also a film that dares to have a violent and sexually inviting image of Jesus, attacking snakes and inviting the young nun to disrobe and embrace Him as he’s nailed to the tree.
“Sometimes it makes me tremble.”