A 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. She is assisted by a companion, and the relationship between the two women develops into a romantic love affair.

A 17th-century nun enters into a forbidden relationship with another member of her convent in . Benedetta Carlini () is an extremely devout young woman, who as a child was admitted into a convent run by Sister Felicita (). Benedetta has repeated versions of Jesus and she comes to be viewed as saintly when the stigmata manifest on her body. However, at the same time, Benedetta enters into a forbidden lesbian relationship with fellow nun Bartolomea (), which eventually results in her being put on trial by The Nuncio ().

Benedetta is a historical drama co-written and directed by Paul Verhoeven (Elle) loosely based on the 1986 non-fiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown. The film tells the story of Benedetta Carlini, played by Belgian actress Virginie Efira, a nun at a convent in Pescia, Tuscana in 17th century Italy. Benedetta has disturbing and erotic visions of Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié), who calls her his bride, and this leads to her being bedridden with hysteria, being cared for by newly admitted nun Bartolomea. Soon a relationship develops between the two and when it is discovered, it leads to an inquisition that could end with Benedetta being burned at the stake.

Paul Verhoeven has been a major provocateur for the entirely of his five-plus decade-long career and indeed he does go all-in on the “lesbian nun” aspects of Benedetta, making this a film that devoutly religious people should think twice about seeing. However, as a whole Benedetta is played as a relatively straight historical drama that questions religious dogma and the need to punish people who seem abnormal in any way. The major irony of the story of Benedetta is that while the titular character is arguably the most devoutly religious person of the story, the fact that she is revealed as a lesbian makes her the subject of persecution by the powers that be.

In some ways, parallels can be formed between Benedetta and Ken Russell's equally provocative 1971 film The Devils, which is also a 17th century set film about a religious figure facing prosecution. However, despite featuring a hard-to-watch torture scene, Benedetta goes nowhere close to the extremes of The Devils, a film that is still incredibly controversial, and it can also be argued that Benedetta has a much more pleasant ending.

Ultimately, Benedetta is a film that finds itself stuck in the middle of being a film that is probably too provocative for casual moviegoers, yet not provocative enough for the fans of Paul Verhoeven. Still worth checking out.

Benedetta is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

Trailer for Benedetta

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.