By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/7/21 – Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has had a long career with a wide range of films, from dystopian cyborg law enforcement (RoboCop) and giant alien bugs to seductive femme Fatales and sultry show dancers – in Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995). One of Verhoeven’s trademark themes is sex and one finds that the focus of even his earliest films like Turkish Delight (1973) and Katie Tippel (1975). In Verhoeven’s latest effort, Benedetta (20210, his depiction of sexually-charged subject matter moves to a historical setting that takes place inside a 17th-century convent in the Italian city of Pescia. Here we watch the fantastical but historically accurate tale of misplaced religious faith and romantic desire, based largely on Judith C. Brown’s non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. This is the story of Benedetta Carlini, very much a real person, and a nun who engaged in a lesbian relationship with a young novice named Bartholomeo.
We witness Benedetta (Virginie Elfira) succumb to the temptations of young Bartholomeo (Daphne Patakia), a wild and illiterate novice at the convent. The two lovers’ forbidden dalliance is put at risk, however, when Benedetta claims to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ himself, drawing both devout worship and vicious cynicism alike from the rest of the sisterhood. Homosexuality, graphic nudity and sex, and broken religious vows are all part of the story that Verhoeven chooses to display openly. Verhoeven himself, however, refutes the idea that his film is blasphemous in any way, instead insisting that his film stands more as a rejection of puritanism. In the 17th century, many convents and monasteries were considered corrupt and efforts by the Counter-Reformation to rectify abuses were randomly pursued by the powerful Catholic hierarchy in Rome.
Less we are distracted by Verhoeven’s fondness for female nudity and subtle digs at the excesses of Roman Catholicism, it is helpful to know that much of this film is accurate historically and based on documentation from Church investigations conducted at the time. Benedetta Carlini was a Catholic mythic and lesbian nun who lived in Pescia in Tuscany, Italy (obviously speaking Italian, but here in the film, everyone speaks French). As abbess of the Theatine Convent of the Mother of God at Pescia, she had a relationship with one of her nuns, Sister Bartolomea. These came to the attention of the counter-reformation Papacy, determined to subordinate potentially troublesome mythic if they showed any signs of independent or heretical spirituality. The main addition to the tale of Benedetta is the introduction of the Convent’s Abbess, later known as Sister Felicita, played brilliantly by Charlotte Rampling. It is this Sister Felicita who most suspects that the mystical visions of Benedetta are staged and eventually takes off to see the Papal Nuncio in Florence to demand a formal Papal inquiry (Hence, the preserved historical documentation of the case).
Although the Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) paid three to four visits to the nunnery, Verhoeven chooses to limit it to a single telling trip during an outbreak of the Plague. It was not until they interrogated Sister Bartolemea that they found that Benedetta and Bartolemea had engaged in sexual relations. Bartolomea gave testimony that Benedetta engaged in “frottage” (mutual masturbation) with her while possessed by the spirit of a male demon known as Splenditello. Benedetta was stripped of her rank as Abbess and imprisoned. It is not known if Bartolemea was tortured to get a confession from her, as Verhoeven has chosen to show in his film. And there is no historical evidence for the damning piece of evidence, a wooden dildo carved by Bartolema from a statue of the Virgin Mary that Benedetta had since her childhood.
As a girl, Benedetta joined a group of unmarried women who wanted to lead an ascetic life; it was not a regularly enclosed convent and they were not even full-fledged nuns. Originally, it was a retreat in a private house where women led a communal life engaged in prayer, spiritual exercises, and making raw silk. This community had been formed nine years earlier in 1590 by Piera Pagni, the widow of a prominent citizen of Pescia. One of her kinsmen, Antonio Pagni, founded an independent religious congregation for men in 1588. He had obtained a degree in canon law at the University of Pisa. He was soon joined by Father Paolo Ricordati (played by Hervé Pierre) and several other priests and laymen. Because of their reputation for saintliness, local people soon began to call them Theatine fathers. Paolo Ricordati was their father-confessor.
Convents required novices to pay an expensive subscription. ″Brides of Christ,” like brides of laymen, were accepted only with dowries. Dowries of wellborn Prescia brides amounted to 1500 scudi, and place in a prestigious female convent like Santa Chiara cost around 400 scudi when a skilled worker earned not more than 55 or 60 scudi a year. A semi-monastic community founded by Piera Pagni required only about 160 scudi, which Benedetta’s parents were able to pay. In the last half of the sixteenth century, many religious communities like this appeared, offering an alternative to many women who could not or did not want to join already established convents. These convents were often considered to be corrupt because many nuns had not joined them by choice; they had been sent there by relatives or driven by a hopeless situation. Also, the life of discarded daughters of aristocratic families in the convents was in many ways indistinguishable from the life of the upper classes on the outside. Her father Giuliano (David Clavel) offered the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) a sizable dowry and promises of wine and food supplements to the convent to gain his young daughter Benedetta a place as a novice at the convent.
As soon as her father Giuliano left her in a community house, nine-year-old Benedetta knelt in front of the statue of the Madonna and said ″My most sweet Mother, I have left my carnal mother for you, I beg you to take me as your daughter.” Not long after this, Benedetta prayed there again, and this statue fell over. As a young novice, she was frightened but thought this was a miracle, showing that the Mother of God wanted to kiss her. Whereas before Benedetta had accepted miracles as being in the nature of things, now she was astounded and awed by this action of the Virgin, which testified to the mighty power of God. Verhoeven further sexualizes the “miracle” by having the Virgin Mary’s breast touching Benedetta’s mouth – a sign of what was to become her later physical interest in female breasts.
At age 23, Benedetta reported to her mother superior and father confessor about her supernatural visions. The first occurred one morning while she was praying. She heard the voice of a male angel and felt great happiness as well as a stronger desire than ever to be good. In the next visions, one time she saw a man dressed in great splendor who saved her from wild lions, scorpions, and boars (Verhoeven changed these into CGI cobras) and said he was Jesus and the animals were demons. Benedetta reacted to her visions with mixed emotions because she was aware of the power and danger of it. The problem for her and her father-confessor was not whether the visions were an illusion, product of her imagination, pathological hallucination, or something real, but whether they were diabolical or divine in origin.
Her father confessor Paolo Ricordati (Hervé Pierre) initially told her to disbelieve anything she saw as not to give the devil grounds on which to work his tricks, to try to repress the onset of visions and to ″pray to God that He send her travails instead of ecstasies and revelations since it seemed to her that this would be safer against the deceits of the devil.″ Benedetta did as he said. She could keep herself from having visions, but she had great difficulty in receiving some sort of travail. Only in 1615, her prayers were answered, and she began to experience such intense pains over her entire body that she was paralyzed by them. The physicians could neither diagnose it nor determine what to do. None of the remedies eased Benedetta’s pain.
In 1617 her visions resumed. But instead of encounters with Jesus and angels, Benedetta now was pursued at night by handsome young men who wanted to kill her and who beat her all over with iron chains, swords, sticks, and other weapons. And she experienced excruciating physical pain. Also, these men urged her to come with them and leave the Theatines, telling her by persevering in her monastic life she would only make herself ill without being certain of the salvation of her soul. One of them even asked Benedetta to be his bride, and when she refused, he tried to take her with brute force. These visionary attacks took place several times a week and lasted for six to eight hours.
One night she couldn’t endure the pain and called other nuns for help. After that, the Abbess assigned her a young companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, to help her in her battles with the devil. Bartolomea was to share Benedetta’s cell and to keep an eye on her at all times. If at this point the confessor and the mother superior had any further concerns about the validity of Benedetta’s claims, they did not voice them. Instead, the convent was now seen as being graced by the presence of a mystic whose body was the battleground between supernatural forces. The confessor and mother superior became extremely solicitous of her welfare and, because of her weakened condition, excused her from participation in many of the daily routines of the community.
The following year in 1619 during Lent, Benedetta received the stigmata. By her own words, these appeared between two and three at night when she was in bed. She saw a crucifix and bright rays from wounds of Christ to her head, hands, feet, and side of the chest. These rays caused tremendous pain, but then Benedetta felt such contentment in her heart that she had never experienced before. Bartolomea Crivelli was nearby, and she was the first to see the signs on Benedetta’s body. When Benedetta talked to the other nuns, she was always in a trance and spoke, not as herself, but as an angel who persuaded the nuns to lead a better life. This angel usually ended the sermons by praising Benedetta, chosen above all others to receive the signs of God’s grace. Had Benedetta not been in an altered state of consciousness, Paolo Ricordati would not have allowed her to give sermons because ″it is shameful for a woman″ to speak in a Christian church, even for an abbess. But if a woman had been favored with the gift of prophecy of other divine gifts, she could be an exception.”
Then Benedetta began receiving visions in her sleep of Jesus talking to her directly and asking her for her heart. Benedetta turned to Bartolomea, saying: ″I don’t know if it is the devil’s work; pray to God for me. If it is the devil’s work, I will make the sign of the cross on my heart, and he will disappear.″ Bartolomea later said that when she was helping Benedetta with her blankets, she came up to her and felt her chest around where her heart should be, and felt a void.
Not only were the nuns of the Congregation of the Mother of God concerned about Benedetta’s religious experience, but also the leading ecclesiastical official in the town – Provost of Stefano Cecchi, and Pescian secular authorities. Speaking through Benedetta, Jesus had said extravagant words of praise for her and the threat for damnation for those who did not believe in her. Firstly Stefano Cecchi had examined the stigmata of Benedetta Carlini since they were the only visible signs of miraculous intervention. Christ had said during Benedetta’s sermon of the previous day that the wounds on her body would be open and larger in appearance than before. The provost, therefore, looked at her hands, feet, and side, where he could see bits of dried blood about the size of a small coin. When they were washed with warm water, each revealed a small opening from which drops of fresh blood trickled out. When the blood was dried with a towel, more came out. On Benedetta’s head were many bloody marks, which also bled into the towel when washed with warm water.
In June 1619, Benedetta revealed to Father Ricordati that she had again seen Jesus in a vision. This time he was an angry and vengeful Christ with an unsheathed sword ready to strike. And he threatened to punish the people of Pescia with the plague for their grievous sins while no one was willing to ask for mercy. Benedetta offered to pray for his mercy herself and to be the instrument of the town’s salvation by spending her time in Purgatory until the day of judgment. Christ’s anger seemed to be appeased by her words.
On the day of the Annunciation (25 of March 1621), the nuns witnessed Benedetta’s death and called Paolo Ricordati. He arrived immediately and commanded Benedetta in a loud voice to return to the living, which, to everyone’s astonishment, had the desired effect. When Benedetta revived, she told the assembled that she had seen angels and demons, Purgatory and Paradise, her father, and several other deceased people.
Sometime between August 1622 and March 1623, Alfonso Giglioli, a newly appointed papal nuncio in Florence, decided to re-investigate Benedetta’s case and sent several of his officials. These investigators were more skeptical than previous ones. Unlike the Theatine nuns, Paolo Ricordati, or Stefano Cecchi, they had nothing to gain from Benedetta’s claims. The doubts of the investigators about the reported miracles and visions were strengthened by their interpretation of Benedetta’s character. Her mystical experiences contained immodest and lascivious language. Her so-called angels bore peculiar names – Splenditello, Tesauriello Fiorito, Virtudioello, and Radicello. These sounded more like the names of evil spirits than of heavenly creatures. Investigators did not find in Carlini charity, humility, patience, obedience, modesty, and other virtues to the eminent and heroic degree which usually accompany the true spirit of God.
Investigators discovered that Benedetta likely had a hereditary demonic obsession. Both her parents had allegedly been possessed for some time. Despite the seeming aversion to the meat and milk products, Benedetta was secretly fetching salami and Cremonese-style mortadella to where she could eat them undisturbed. But one time, another nun saw it. This was like Benedetta’s father’s behavior when he “too was assailed by spirits.” Testimonies of other nuns made it clear that some of Benedetta’s supernatural phenomena were falsifications. Two nuns spied on Benedetta through the hole in her study door and more than twenty times saw her renewing her wounds with a large needle. Some of this is downplayed by Verhoeven in his film version of Benedetta’s story: He prefers to focus on the lesbian love affair between Benedetta and the novice Bartolomea.
As investigators reported, “This sister Benedetta, then, for two continuous years, at least three times a week, in the evening after disrobing and going to bed, would wait for her companion to disrobe, and pretending to need her, would call. When Bartolomea would come over, Benedetta would grab her by the arm and throw her by force on the bed. Embracing her, she would put her under herself and kiss her as if she was a man, she would speak words of love to her. And she would stir on top of her so much that both of them corrupted themselves. And thus by force, she held her sometimes for one, sometimes two, and sometimes three hours.” Of course, Verhoeven is happy to show several of these sex scenes in titillating detail. “Benedetta would tell her that neither she nor Benedetta was sinning because it was the Angel Splenditello and not she that did these things. And she always spoke with the voice which Splenditello always spoke through Benedetta.” Benedetta refused to admit that she had engaged in sexual acts and claimed she could not remember what she did when Splenditello spoke and acted through her.
The investigators were not prepared for such things because in Italy and Europe in the 17th century were very few documented cases of sexual relationships between women, and much more cases of heterosexual fornication between a nun and her male lover, and cases of male homosexuality. What adds fuel to the flames of the story, of course, is the ever-present fear of the Plague entering Pescia. In Verhoeven’s tale, Benedetta promises to keep the plague out of her city and orders the city gates closed to all. However, the clandestine visit of a suspicious Sister Felicita to Florence and the arrival of the Papal Nuncio from plague-stricken Florence soon turned all to chaos, as Verhoeven goes full tilt on the denunciation of Benedetta – condemning her to be burnt at the stake. There is no historical evidence for this, but it is a predictable crowd-pleasing ending to a film. The real-life Benedetta Carlini died at age 71, having spent thirty-five years in a convent prison in a solitary cell.