17th Century Europe, 17th Century Italy, Benedetta Carlini, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Homosexuality, Interesting Women, Monks and Nuns, Paul Verhoeven, Religious Stuff, Virginie Efira
Sorry for my very long absence. Covid completely up-ended my work load in ways that have made doing any writing for pleasure nearly impossible. But this weekend my husband dragged me out of the house to go see a movie, and I felt I simply had to blog about it.
(And my subtitle is a riff on an old Benny Hill skit that reimagines Little Bo Peep as a 70s porn film. For some reason, that skit impressed me way too much as a kid.)
Spoiler Alert: If you plan on seeing this film in the theater, you may want to wait to read this until you have done so, since my review discusses major plot points.
Benedetta (2021, dir. Paul Verhoeven, French with English subtitles) tells the story of a lesbian nun in 17th century Tuscany. She is dedicated to a convent in the small town of Pescia when she is ten. Already at this age she feels a special connection to the Virgin Mary; the night after joining the convent, she kneels in prayer before a statue of the Virgin; the pedestal holding the statue breaks and the statue topples over onto her, pressing its exposed breast close to Benedetta’s face.
A decade later, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is content with her life as a nun, although she doesn’t get along well with Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte), who seems to be the biological daughter of the Mother Superior Felicita (Charlotte Rampling in a great performance). But she begins having visions in which Jesus appears to her, often defending her from bandits or snakes. She also begins to discover her sexual attraction to the rather coarse novice nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), when she accidentally sees the novice naked while bathing.
Benedetta’s visions are often accompanied by seizures, and so Felicita decides that Bartolomea should share a cell (or more properly just a curtained-off enclosure) with Benedetta to help her if she has a fit. During one vision, in which Benedetta sees Jesus on the cross and realizes he has a vagina instead of a penis, she receives the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.
Although the convent’s priest believes what Benedetta is experiencing, Felicita is more skeptical, pointing out that genuine stigmata are always accompanied with the wounds of the crown of thorns, which Benedetta does not have. Benedetta leaves the chamber but is soon found collapsed on the floor, bleeding from wounds to her scalp. In an unearthly voice that seems to represent Jesus, she declares that Benedetta is being persecuted. That resolves the question of authenticity for most of the nuns, and word begins to spread through Pescia that she is a saint. The priest pulls some strings and gets Benedetta appointed abbess, relegating Felicita to the status of a mere nun, which she accepts with equanimity.
One of the benefits of being mother superior is that Benedetta and Bartolomea now have a private room, and Bartolomea wastes no time in introducing Benedetta to lesbian sex. Unable to pleasure her deeply enough, Bartolomea carves a statue of the Virgin Mary into a dildo and the two carry on, not realizing that Felicita can spy on them though a hole in the wall.
Although Felicita can accept her demotion, Christina can’t. She tries to denounce Benedetta to the priest in the confessional, falsely claiming that she saw Benedetta cut the stigmata into herself with a piece of broken glass. The priest persuades her to make the accusation in front of the other nuns, but Felicita refuses to support Christina’s version of events and the priest orders Christina to flog herself. The whole incident traumatizes her so much she soon commits suicide by throwing herself off the convent roof.
That persuades Felicita to take action. Even though the Plague has broken out in Tuscany, she travels to Florence and denounces Benedetta to the Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who arrives and conducts an investigation. He tortures Bartolomea, who eventually reveals everything to him and gives him the dildo as proof. He orders Benedetta to be burned in the town square. But the local populace are not willing to see their saint die, especially since she had promised that Pescia would be spared from the Plague as long as she was alive. Benedetta displays the stigmata and denounces the Nuncio as her persecutor, and the townspeople riot and free her and kill the Nuncio while Felicita, infected with the Plague, throws herself on the flames.
Afterwards, Bartolomea confronts Benedetta with a shard of pottery she found when she untied Benedetta from the stake. She accuses Benedetta of being a fraud and faking the stigmata. Benedetta responds that she doesn’t know what she does when she is having visions, and she returns to the convent, with an epilogue text telling us that she lived in solitary confinement for the next 30 years.
I really liked the movie up until the point where the Nuncio got involved, because at that point it degenerated into predictable clichés about tyrannical clergymen torturing and burning people. In particular it dwells at some length on a supposed torture instrument, the Pear of Anguish, which is used on Bartolomea. Supposedly these devices were inserted into an orifice and then cranked open, causing intense pain and damage to bone and tissue. But despite some uncertainty about what ‘pears of anguish’ were used for in the 17th century, they’re not torture devices because the few that aren’t 19th century forgeries aren’t designed to crank open but rather cranked closed; they spring open and don’t generate enough force to do anything more than be vaguely uncomfortable.
But before that, the film offers a nice view of the complexities of convent life: the daily lives of the nuns; some of the work they do; the complex personal politics of the space; and the interplay between faith, skepticism, and politics. The film has a nice running motif of seeing that Verhoeven develops nicely to explore the issue of different kinds of vision.
Benedetta’s visions as they are showed to us are not unlike the visions some medieval nuns reported, and the film consistently refuses to take sides in the question of whether Benedetta’s visions are genuine or whether she suffers from some form of mental illness or epilepsy. Unfortunately, about the time Benedetta becomes mother superior, the film stops showing us her visions, so that element of the film gets somewhat forgotten.
My biggest complaint about the film, which will not be a surprise, is that a film written by two men and directed by one can’t help but indulge the male gaze too much. The nudity slowly becomes more explicit, especially when Bartolomea is stripped naked to be tortured, and in the last conversation between the two nuns both of the women are entirely nude. The two fairly explicit sex scenes feel rather gratuitous. Verhoeven simply can’t resist the lure of the more salacious elements of the story and succumbs to the temptation to treat these ‘lesbians’ with a prurient interest.
Yeah, But Did It Happen?
A lot of it, yes.
In the early 1980s, historian Judith C. Brown discovered the records of two investigations into the nun Benedetta Carlini in the Florentine archives and was able to reconstruct a substantial amount of information about her. She was born in 1590 to a prosperous silk-worm farmer, Giuliano Carlini. Her birth was a difficult one and Guiliano vowed to dedicate the child to the service of the Virgin Mary if mother and child survived, which they did; ‘Benedetta’ means ‘blessing’. Giuliano, surprisingly, was literate and educated his daughter quite well, emphasizing her spiritual gifts.
As a young girl, she experienced strange things. A black dog mysteriously attacked her and then vanished, and a nightingale seemed to regularly imitate her singing. The family decided that the dog had been the Devil and the nightengale was sent by the Virgin. When she was 9, Giuliano decided that the time had come for Benedetta to enter a convent. She bid farewell to the nightingale and it flew away and was not seen again. She joined the Theatine house in Pescia, a group that were technically not nuns but laywomen living communally and following the Rule of St. Augustine, but Verhoeven can be forgiven for simplifying this detail, and to simplify I’ll just call the inhabitants nuns.
Soon after she joined the Order, Benedetta was praying in front of a statue of the Virgin when it fell over, which scared her but which she interpreted as evidence that the Virgin wished to kiss her. Beyond that, however, she seems to have been a fairly typical if highly obedient nun. Then in 1613, she began to report visions. In her first, she was in a heavenly garden with a beautiful fountain. In other visions, she was attacked by lions and other wild animals, only to be saved by Jesus, who appeared on horseback to defend her. These visions happened when she was praying, and others present reported that she seemed to be in a trance and often gesticulated and spoke incompressible words.
Benedetta and her confessor, Paolo Ricordati, agreed these were real visions, but wrestled with whether they were from God or the Devil. On Ricordati’s advising, she began to pray for struggles, because those would be more likely a gift from God rather than a seducing vision from the Devil. Two years later, her prayers were answered with painful attacks of paralysis. But in 1617, her visions resumed, this time being filled with frightening images of young men pursuing her with weapons; these visions could last for up to 6 to 8 hours. Eventually, she asked for help and it was agreed that a younger nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, was assigned to share her cell and to provide aid when Benedetta requested it.
In 1618, the nuns relocated to a new house, and Benedetta walked the entire route in a trance, seeing angels accompanying her and the Virgin greeting her at the new house. Three months later, she received a trance in which she saw the Crucifixion and received the stigmata, which Bartolomea described as looking like small rosettes.
These developments deeply impressed the nuns. They voted to select Benedetta as their new abbess (which didn’t involve demoting their previous abbess). By Lent of 1619, Benedetta was in the habit of preaching sermons to the nuns, a highly irregular thing for an abbess to do. She preached in a trance, encouraging the nuns to scourge themselves as she did so. She spoke not as Benedetta Carlini but as an angel. Ricordati was troubled by this development, but felt that since Benedetta was not preaching per se but rather speaking as a prophetess channelling the words of an angel, it was acceptable.
In March of that year, she had a vision in which Jesus removed her heart. Three days later, he replaced it with his own heart, one that felt much larger. He also ordered her to never eat meat, eggs, or grains and drink only water. He also assigned her a guardian angel, Splenditello, who carried a branch that had flowers on one side to represent the good things she did and thorns on the other to represent her sins; when she erred, Splenditello would strike her with the thorny side, making her feel physical pain.
In May of 1619, Benedetta announced that she was to marry Jesus. (Note that by this time, she was about 30, not about 20 as she is in the film.) After a week of preparations (in which the nuns borrowed numerous items from other religious houses in the area), there was a complex wedding ceremony conducted; this too Father Ricordati was ok with. During the ceremony, Benedetta saw Jesus, the Virgin Mary, numerous saints, and many angels appear, and Jesus put a golden ring on her finger; she narrated all the details to the assembled nuns. Then she preached a sermon speaking as Jesus, declaring that Benedetta was the “empress of all nuns” and that those who did not believe in her would not be saved. The whole ‘marriage with Jesus’ element is something Verhoeven chose to entirely omit from the story, which is a pity because it plays an extremely important role in the actual events.
Benedetta’s behaviors are certainly unusual, but hardly unprecedented. Late Medieval and Early Modern nuns of a more mystical bent frequently had visions; Benedetta’s older contemporary, St Teresa of Avila, is perhaps the most famous example in her period, but Italian nuns such as St Catherine of Siena and St Angela Foligno also had such experiences, and Benedetta and her fellow nuns were highly aware of St Catherine’s example and many of her experiences mirrored Catherine’s, including prolonged fasting, visions, and stigmata. Female mystics frequently spoke of Jesus as the “bridegroom” or “lover” of their soul, and marital imagery was a common way to describe union of the soul with Jesus. And Benedetta was clearly familiar with St Catherine; she was eventually made the house’s patron saint. The two truly unusual elements in the story are the elaborate wedding ceremony, and Jesus and angels speaking directly through Benedetta, but apparently even these elements did not strike Ricordati as automatically problematic, especially since Benedetta had been able to demonstrate some control over the phenomena, thereby conforming to St Paul’s statement that Christians do not receive a spirit of disorder but of order.
However, Benedetta’s marriage ceremony coincided with her house’s application to be elevated to a full convent, and that process drew her to the attention of the papal authorities, who had requested that the provost of Pescia, Stefano Cecchi, give them a report. Cecchi was fully aware of the wedding ceremony, and was apparently uncomfortable with it, because he had tried to restrict who could be present at it. Then he forbade anyone to discuss the ceremony, and decided to conduct a formal investigation of the matter.
He examined Benedetta’s stigmata and determined that they produced fresh blood when the dried blood was washed off. He visited her a total of 14 times over the following months, and became more perplexed by her stigmata, because sometimes they seemed to be healing and other times they bled freshly. At one point she exited the examination and then rushed back in with blood pouring down her face and in great pain. Ultimately Cecchi concluded that she was a true visionary. The pope elevated the house to full status as a monastery and Benedetta was confirmed as its abbess. This whole series of events is simplified in the film into a single examination that happens before Benedetta becomes abbess; indeed, it’s really why she becomes abbess.
Two years later, Benedetta died. Ricordati came immediately and commanded Benedetta to live again, and to the nuns’ surprise, she revived and described another vision she had had. Perhaps Ricordati was familiar enough with the symptoms of Carlini’s seizures that he was able to recognize her as being merely unconscious. This incident also happens in the film, but later, during the second formal examination.
The second examination began sometime between August of 1622 and March of 1623. A new papal nuncio, Alfonso Giglioli, became interested in Benedetta for reasons that are unclear. He was far more skeptical of her than Ricordati or Cecchi. During his investigation, Giglioli identified several contradictions in her visions. The ring that she eventually produced as her wedding ring was a shabby one, quite different from what she had described.
The nuns, when questioned, also pointed to some odd behavior. Despite having announced her strict diet, one nun claimed to have seen her furtively eating salami and mortadella. Another said that when she preached and urged the nuns to courage themselves, she never actually struck herself with the scourge she felt but rather seemed to smear it with blood from her hand. Damningly, two nuns claimed they had repeatedly spied on Benedetta through a hole in a door and had witnessed her renewing her wounds with a needle. (There is a hole in the bedroom wall in the film, but Felicita uses it not to spy on Benedetta’s stigmata but on her sexual activities.)
The most startling testimony, however, came from Sister Bartolomea. She said that repeatedly, after she had disrobed, Benedetta would call to her for assistance and when she came over, Benedetta would throw her down on the bed, climb on top of her, and rub their bodies together. When Benedetta did this, she would speak as Splenditello and tell Bartolomea that what they were doing was not a sin because he was doing it, not Benedetta. Benedetta, when question by the investigators, denied having any memory of what she did when Splenditello was controlling her. This is the point where Verhoeven really deviates from the facts. Splenditello never plays any role in the movie at all, and in the film it is Bartolomea and not Benedetta who initiates sex. There was no dildo. The nuncio himself never showed up in Pescia, never tortured Bartolomea, never attempted to burn Benedetta, and was not killed in a riot (he actually died in 1630).
By November of 1623, the investigation had ended and the nuncio had issued a ruling. Benedetta’s stigmata had vanished and she said that she was no longer receiving any visions, although she does not seem to have admitted any imposture. It was concluded that all the apparent miracles were intentionally fabricated by Benedetta. She was removed as abbess. But exactly what the nuncio did beyond that is unclear because she mostly disappears from the records at that point. In 1661, a nun recorded in her diary that Benedetta had died at age 71 of a fever after spending 35 years in prison, by which she likely meant solitary confinement. If that nun was correct, however, that means that Benedetta was not put into solitary confinement in 1623, because that would have been 38 years earlier. Brown speculates that Carlini must have done something in 1626 that merited more harsh treatment than whatever she received in 1623, but we can only speculate about what might have happened. But the townspeople were apparently still quite interested in Carlini, because they sought to get access to her body and the nuns had to bar the monastery doors until she could be buried. Bartolomea died in 1660.
Much of the scholarly debate about Carlini has turned on the question of how to interpret her sexuality. Brown read her as being a lesbian, using the character of Splenditello to express her own lesbian desires, and therefore viewed her through the lens of the history of women’s spirituality and sexuality. But some critics have argued that doing this reads Carlini through a contemporary lens of sexual identities that would have been entirely foreign to Carlini herself; the very concept of ‘lesbians’ did not exist in the 17th century and it’s not even clear that Carlini, Bartolomea, and the investigators recognized Bartolomea’s description as being about sex. For most people of the era, sex required a penis being inserted into some orifice, so in the absence of a penis, they may not have recognized sex as happening. (And it’s worth noting the Verhoeven evidently can’t imagine lesbian sex without a substitute penis.)
Historian Brian Levack has approached Carlini from a very different standpoint. In his work on exorcism in the Early Modern period, he argues that demonic possession provided female ‘victims’ an opportunity to depart from normal social rules about meekness, passivity, and restraint by enacting a wide range of taboo behaviors, including convulsions, blasphemy, vomiting, exhibitionism, and so on. Thus possession was an opportunity for victims to perform a drastically different social role than the one they normally were bound by. (In a previous blog post, I discussed a similar reading of the Salem Witch Trials.) Levack thus views possession as a form of performance, situating Benedetta’s actions not in the history of sexuality but rather in the history of religious theater, and it is worth noting the degree to which Benedetta’s visions and seizures had a literally theatrical element to them; the most obvious example is her wedding ceremony, but also her move from the old house to the new one and a couple of religious processessions she orchestrated.
Finally, it is worth at least pondering the gender roles Benedetta maintained. Although she was a nun and underwent a spiritual marriage to become a literal bride of Christ, she occasionally adopted the persona of two male figures, Jesus and Splenditello. When she was Jesus, Benedetta was both bride and groom in one body, and when she had sex with Bartolomea, she played a male role both by initiating sex through seduction/deception and by being on top of Bartolomea. Is it possible that we should view Benedetta not as a lesbian but as an example of what we today would call a trans man or gender-fluid person? Unfortunately, that’s a question we can’t answer because the investigators didn’t ask Benedetta about how she understood her gender. She never engaged in any form of cross-dressing or breast-binding (that we know of), but she did engage in attempts to control her body through fasting and, apparently, through self-mutilation, both practices which some trans individuals today struggle with. Her seizures, the physical pain her body experienced, and her dramatic death and revival might also point to a sense of alienation from her body. And to borrow a point from Levack’s approach, her behavior while having visions and being possessed allowed her to temporarily put off her highly-restricted feminine identity and engage in male-coded behavior such as drawing attention to herself, preaching, taking a leadership role, and initiating sex. Thus it is not unreasonable to consider whether Benedetta was seeking to express a sense that she was male even if her body was not.
Benedetta does a nice job of calling attention to a fascinating and very obscure woman. The film does a very good job of exploring convent life and exploring some of Benedetta’s experiences. But by making Bartolomea the sexual aggressor and excluding the details about Splenditello, I think Verhoeven misrepresents Benedetta in a fairly key way, and the whole third act departs from the most fascinating elements of her story in favor of a clichéd false ending that seriously diminishes my appreciation for the film.
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