Paul Verhoeven has done it again. As with his infamous box-office bomb Showgirls, Benedetta had the prerequisites for success: a talented cast (there is a reason Charlotte Rampling enjoys a Meryl Streep-esque status in Europe), a multi-million-dollar budget and an abundance of intelligent themes within the story, such as the awakening of carnal desires in the homosocial setting of a Catholic convent and the church’s brutal scheming and manipulation of the masses. This piece draws timely parallels to the plague and today’s pandemic, even though it was supposed to be released in 2019. Yet, even with all these elements at hand, the Dutch director did not manage to fuse them into an engaging film
The period drama starts on the day young Benedetta Carlini is brought into a convent in Tuscan Pescia as a child bride for Jesus. Lucky coincidences work in the little girl’s favour, who credits her connection to God for the “miracles”. All grown up and having secured a notable reputation among the sisters, her by-the-book life is turned upside down with the arrival of novice Bartolomea.
From the first time the audience sees her, the protagonist prays to the Virgin Mary, asking to be a surrogate mother; she confirms this sentiment by sucking at a sculpture’s nipple. This relationship does not only turn incestuous with her “marriage” to Jesus, but also when a smaller Mary likeness starts to weave into her relations with Bartolomea. There is one disturbing scenario after the other, coming across as ludicrous more than laugh-out-loud funny. Another such moment – evocative of a scene in the aforementioned Showgirls – is when the two women share a first bond over using the latrines together. It is not the real, relatable, women-behaving-gross-is-empowering moment the writers probably assumed it to be. Rather, the ordeal is reminiscent of fecal humour of the likes of Scary Movie.
There are felicitous moments in the film, in particular those that touch upon the abhorrent corruption and classism of the Catholic church. Rampling is brilliant as always, a powerhouse as her character navigates the politics of the clergy.
What is arguably the picture’s biggest flaw, all in all, is its refusal to position itself on the protagonist’s alleged link to Jesus. Was he really speaking through her, was it a deliberate ruse or was she just a woman with an undiagnosed brain tumour? Instead of taking a clear stance, Benedetta tries to hide behind being based on the true story of the myth-enshrouded village that escaped the worst of the plague. The titular character remains opaque and her motives are unclear, making it hard to sympathise with her. As such, the film remains in limbo, unable to make a mark.
Benedetta does not have a UK release date yet.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.