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Caitlin hails this 17th century gay nun narrative a perfect reintroduction to in-person cinema.

The synopsis promised violence, sex, and religious hypocrisy. The Daily Mail called it a “sexy lesbian nun flick”. In its first week of release, it garnered an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I am, of course, talking about Paul Verhoeven’s newest release Benedetta. This psychological horror biopic centres around the 17th century nun who purportedly protected the city of Pescia from the plague and has been a highly anticipated fixture of the Glasgow Film Festival 2022. Benedetta is an excellent entry back into in-person cinema viewing. It is a movie whose premise fills the viewer with anticipation entering the theatre that then melts into awe as the opening credits roll and Verhoeven’s familiar subtle comedic style returns. 

We meet Benedetta, played by Virginie Efira, who is accepted into an exclusive nunnery due to her involvement in several small religious miracles. As she grows up, she develops both a love for Jesus and her fellow nun Bartolomea. Her struggle between her relationship with Bartolomea and her relationship with God puts the entire province of Tuscany at risk – the prophecy is that she must stay alive for the plague to pass Pescia, but she will surely be killed if her fellow nuns discover her sapphic love. Efira brings a maddening beauty to her lead role, ever impressively conveying Benedetta’s tumultuous relationship with ego. Her personality is great yet flawed and at all times walking the line between sacred and profane. The actress expertly shields the audience from discovering if she is truly a miracle worker or merely a compulsive liar, attempting to shield the public from her sexuality. 

"Her struggle between her relationship with Bartolomea and her relationship with God puts the entire province of Tuscany at risk..."

The cinematography echoes the paired back motifs of renaissance Frescos with jarring portraits of religious figures alongside beautiful open landscapes. Benedetta is often followed by a ring of lighting subtly injecting another layer of spiritual symbolism. Verhoeven’s imagery confidently moves between horrific and holy in a way only the Dutch director has mastered. Furthermore, the plague setting is a comical reference for a modern audience who would not have been able to attend the theatre if the release date had been merely a year earlier. Verhoeven expertly immerses his audiences into Benedetta’s life – a woman stuck in the confines of her home exploring her queerness is hardly unrelatable. 

As the GFF screening ended, the audience were let in on the fight that members of its committee engaged in to have Benedetta shown. It is controversial as Verhoeven uses the film as a jab towards the hypocritical nature of religion; its main antagonist is the Bishop of Tuscany. One committee member remarked that they were surprised to see no “Father Ted’” protests outside of the cinema. However, it is hard to see how anyone could watch the feature among an audience illuminated by shots of the Tuscan sun, laughing at the incomparably witty dialogue and not see the merit of Benedetta as part of the GFF line up.  

Overall, Verhoeven promised big things and I’m glad to say he delivered. This blend of comedy, horror and biopic is not one to be missed.


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