by Saira B
Welcome to our moon-synced movie review show, hosted by Saira Barbaric and NEVE. This duo of South Seattle creatives makes multidisciplinary work together and individually. For this show, they’re ecstatic to join their love of astrology, ritual, and pop culture. Stream this month’s podcast at the New Moon Movie Review official podcast website.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s late night. I’m sweating. Neve is anxiously anticipating my movie pick and I have nothing! In the depths of my Hulu queue lurks this fiery image of Virginie Efira in a white cloth veil. I see that this film is directed by Paul Verhoeven, and I know — this is it.
2021’s Benedetta is rare for me, because I entered my viewing with no information outside the streaming website’s details. Benedetta is common for me — and likely many queer film aficionados — as a tale about the doomed lesbians of yore. Verhoeven’s 30th directing credit, this film mirrors Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) or Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018) on a variety of levels.
In comparing the visual storytelling of Benedetta and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Benedetta’s artistic team does deft work at creating visions and foretellings that are thorough and illustrative. Whereas in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the foretellings are more like blink-and-you-miss-it moments that highlight the lead character’s inescapable loss. Benedetta and The Favourite are matched in the grandeur of their societal settings and how well they achieve intimate sweetness in the midst of the messy and venomous lives of the characters.
Each of the three dramas has a European country of origin, an enchanting specificity in the historical costuming, and a constant tenor of uncertainty as to the fate of our sapphic lead characters. All three films are based upon the lives of yesteryear’s actual lavender menaces. This facet both titillates me and ensures the yearning and loss-filled endings of each tale.
Endings notwithstanding, from the mindset of a nerd who loves magical realism and exploring religious mythology, Benedetta is quite a ride. The visions Benedetta has of a sensual and heroic European Jesus escalate throughout the film. Benedetta’s Jesus kisses her, saves her from snakes, rescues her on a white horse, and requests that they be crucified together, nude. I cherish the romance in these visions. I appreciate the broad realities of how many adore our deities being expressed in these specific Christian frames, but I wonder how devout Christians feel about this film’s engagement with Benedetta, who was never verified or fully associated with the church. The Christian magic in this movie is a shade more serious, but just as literal as any found in Supernatural, a long-running fantasy television series.
To return to speaking of endings, Verhoeven seems to want the audience to leave with a belief in at least Benedetta’s tenacity if not her mystical connections. As the movie reaches its climax and conclusion, Verhoeven’s contributions in collaboration with Efira’s performance build a thematic certainty of Benedetta’s duty and purpose in Pescia. For me, the Black pagan viewer, the inspiration did not strike. I dove into research mode as soon as credits rolled. I was mostly left bereft for Bartolomea, who was Benedetta’s lover, and livid at history’s exhausting cycle of dominant cultures. I like to imagine, at the minimum, the latter feeling was intentional on the storytellers’ part.
Paul Verhoeven and I have a complicated relationship, which is involved in why I picked this film. Verhoeven is a Dutch director with a wide range that I know mostly from his 1987–2000 works, which include RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), Starship Troopers (1997), and Hollow Man (2000). I knew he had a fondness for delving into fraught themes and complicated characters. I admire that. I don’t often fully enjoy the end result. Of his filmography, I have to say that Benedetta is my favorite at this point.
Connections that begin over communal toilet troughs and the sharing of traumas are bound to be unstable. As a moral, that’s one of the most clear to be found in Benedetta. The others are muddled in the mix of Christian magic and beautifully acted complex characters. That’s all right, though — life is muddled. Most lessons are not so clearly shared. Technically, the quality of chiaroscuro achieved in the lighting is soothing and stimulating in equal measure. The colors have a painterly quality that assists in evoking the 1600s time period.
I recommend Bendetta if you are a queer-film completist, enjoy period films about magic and religion, enjoy an array of casual to plot-relevant boobs in your movies, or generally appreciate Charlotte Rampling’s severe energy. I don’t recommend Benedetta if you’re uncomfortable with a lot of papal authority, don’t want to see a dramatic sustained scene of a suicide, or will be upset by the plot focus on and scenes of the torture of a lesbian.
Listen to our podcast episode to hear Neve’s report on this month’s new moon, about the research I fell into about the real Benedetta, and see if I can summarize this madness in 60 seconds.
Since 2015, Saira B (he/she/they/ze) has been based in Seattle creating performance art, films, and events that explore mythology, eroticism, AfroPsychedelic dreams, ritual objects, and glitch as digital expressionism. Barbaric-art.com has more about Saira’s projects and past works.
NEVE (they/(s)he) is a multigender, multiracial, multiply Disabled, multidimensional, multidisciplinary terpsichorean artist of the stage, street, field, stream, and screen. They are an Indigenous African living in Duwamish and Coast Salish lands and traveling wherever they have access and an invitation. (S)He is a 2020 Pina Bausch Fellow and a 2022 Arc Artist Fellow. Visit them online at nevebebad.com and beyond.
📸 Featured Image: This month’s New Moon Movie Night review is about “Benedetta,” a 2021 film by Paul Verhoeven about a lesbian nun, faith, eroticism, and mysticism. (Image: Saira B from photos by Victoria Akvarel, Michael Morse, and Francesco Paggiaro via Pexels.)
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