When little Benedetta arrives as a child at the Convent in Pescia, a small town in Tuscany, the interaction surrounding her entry into the life of a nun lays bare the inherent hypocrisy of letting humans be stewards of a higher power. Benedetta’s father, trying to get the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) to understand how he promised his daughter to God for saving her young life, misunderstands the nature of their meeting. He foolishly thinks that the church takes young women to serve the Lord, failing to understand that this organization sees itself as matchmakers, intermediaries in the quest to find wives more servile to Jesus. But when the Abbess makes it clear that a bride of Jesus needs a dowry like any other potential bride and her tone changes to that of a man finalizing a business deal, she reacts with disgust.
Yes, the transactional nature of their interaction is not recommendable, but it is acceptable as long as it is never explicit.
Benedetta’s family encounter a gang of thieves before arriving at the convent, a group of marauders she dispenses with by insisting the Virgin Mary speak to her and hear her calls, an empty threat made real by a passing bird. by chance defecating on one of the men’s faces. But her special connection isn’t enough to prevent her father from being milked by the Abbess in exchange for her new life. She must trade her adoration for this figure to which she feels closest for a more rigid but always changing interpretation of the divine of this new institution. Verhoeven chooses to illustrate this paradigm shift and its ominous implications with a young Benedetta trapped under a fallen statue of Mary who should have crushed and killed her, instead of landing in such a way that her exposed chest was at the height of mouth. Sapphic imagery is so on the nose that it’s impossible not to laugh at the implicit love triangle it is in.
And so, the story of Benedetta, as she navigates a life of faithfulness promised to a man she does not know and cannot see against more nebulous impulses of which she is not yet aware, changes wildly. when she begins to literally see him and feel him in his presence. When performing a play with her sisters, Benedetta has an intense vision of a being we can only call Sexy Jesus, as his appearance and stature briefly make the film look like a porn parody of the Bible. His position as one of his wives suddenly feels literal, and these visions start to creep in more and more as another important figure comes into his life.
Bartolomea, a woman who runs away to the convent to escape her abusive family, becomes Benedetta’s charge when she begs her father to pay for Bartolomea’s entry into the church. But the temptation she represents when they start to bond begins to poison her visions of Sexy Jesus, the interludes becoming more and more garish and brutal.
The crises she endured through this tumultuous time show the fractured nature of this institution, underscoring that same essential hypocrisy that began Benedetta’s life in the church.