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Sex, sin and sacrilege: Inside the making of the lesbian nun thriller 'Benedetta'

In Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, Virginie Efira and Daphné Patakia play 17th century nuns who become entangled in a forbidden love affair.
Virginie Efira as ‘Benedetta’ and Daphne Patakia as ‘Bartolomea’ in Paul Verhoeven’s "Benedetta."
Virginie Efira as Benedetta and Daphne Patakia as Bartolomea in Paul Verhoeven’s "Benedetta."Courtesy of IFC Films

Paul Verhoeven — the provocative filmmaker behind the cult classics “RoboCop” (1987), “Total Recall” (1990), “Basic Instinct” (1992) and “Showgirls” (1995) — is no stranger to controversy. But the Dutch director’s latest outing, “Benedetta,” was still the talk of the town at the Cannes Film Festival and enough to draw the ire of religious protesters during the New York Film Festival.

Directed by Verhoeven, 83, and co-written by him and David Birke, the titillating thriller tells the story of Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), a 17th century Italian nun who becomes entangled in a forbidden lesbian love affair with a novice named Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) — all while claiming to have visions of Jesus that elevate her position as the leader of her convent. While some believe Benedetta is a true mystic, others, including the former mother superior (Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling) and the nuncio (Lambert Wilson), question whether she has ulterior motives, resulting in a trial that ends Benedetta’s reign as an abbess.

The film, which is set in the Tuscan town of Pescia but was filmed in French, is loosely based on the historian Judith C. Brown’s 1986 nonfiction book, “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” The book, in turn, is based on papers Brown discovered in the state archives of Florence, which detailed a series of inquiries into the legitimacy of Benedetta’s claims of mystical miracles and visions and her forbidden relationship with Bartolomea. According to The New York Times, it is believed to be “the most complete account among the handful of lesbian love affairs on record from antiquity until modern times.”

Efira said that, having played a supporting role in Verhoeven’s 2016 thriller, “Elle,” she immediately jumped at the chance to work again with the prolific filmmaker, who had written the part of Benedetta with her in mind. In their initial meeting about the project, Efira said, Verhoeven informed her that there would be “a lot of sex scenes with girls” — to which the Belgian actress responded, “No problem.”

After Efira was cast as the titular nun, Verhoeven screen-tested 20 actors before he chose Patakia, who brought “a lot of enthusiasm, pleasure and playfulness” to the role of Bartolomea, he said in an interview provided to the media. Patakia said that given that she wasn’t overly familiar with Verhoeven’s filmography, she watched all of his old films “to understand the tone” of his movies, because little to no information is available about the real-life Bartolomea.

“Since Paul isn’t a big fan of the psychology of the characters, we talked, of course, with him, but we didn’t do much preparation,” Patakia told NBC News in a joint video interview with Efira. “He has a lot of faith in his actors, so we were very much free to do our own interpretation. It was only what I could take from the script and just to be open in the moment and take whatever was happening with Virginie, and the only thing I knew Paul really wanted from me was some lightness. The lightness was very important.”

Verhoeven has consistently walked the line between irony and ambiguity throughout his career, keeping not only audiences but also his actors on their toes. In his latest film, his protagonist, Benedetta, appears to be living dual realities as a devoted nun who wakes up from her visions of Jesus with stigmata and a political leader looking to exercise her growing power and influence in Pescia. That power, Efira said, allowed Benedetta to get her own private room in the convent, where she could be intimate with Bartolomea.

Efira said that given that Verhoeven wanted her to keep her long, blond hair and natural physique — which weren’t common to that era — to give Benedetta a more modern appearance, there are parallels between the present and her character’s “mixed motivations” in the 17th century.

“We are in a period where everything is polarized. If you’re good, you’re like this. And if you’re bad, you’re like that,” she said of the present. 

Regardless of what time period one is in, she added, “it’s more nuanced and more complicated” than just simply “good” vs. “bad.” In the case of Benedetta, Efira said, “she believes that God exists ... but at the same time, I think maybe you can say she did all of that for the room to be alone with Bartolomea.”

From the moment Benedetta and Bartolomea first meet in the convent, they engage in a clandestine game of cat and mouse and begin to explore each other’s bodies and sexualities, culminating in the use of a shaved-down, wooden Virgin Mary figurine as a sex toy in one of many particularly climactic scenes. While the written records show that Bartolomea told inquisitors that Benedetta had seduced her in the abbey, Verhoeven and Birke decided to turn the story on its head, with the onscreen Bartolomea inducing the relationship.

Bartolomea “comes to the monastery in the beginning of the film to flee her abusive father and brothers, and she finds herself in a very free space where she can assume her desires,” Patakia said. “It’s very instinctive. She’s very much in touch with her body and what she desires, and both of them want the power differently.

“She is, of course, very happy when Benedetta gains more and more power, even if she doesn’t really believe her [visions],” Patakia added. “But she doesn’t care, because what she wants she can get through Benedetta’s power, because they can have a room of their own and they can explore and experience whatever they want. They both want the power to do whatever they want, and I think that’s also what they share in common, but maybe it’s more clear for Bartolomea.”

Efira said, “There’s a similarity in the way [Benedetta’s] relationship to Bartolomea advances and her relationship with faith advances,” and it happens in three distinct stages. “In the first stage, she feels inferior to God, and there’s this idea of veneration. And then, she meets Bartolomea, and she’s faced with the dilemma of how to put her faith together with her love and desire for Bartolomea,” she said.

“Then, there’s the second stage that she finds to deal with that dilemma. She feels like: ‘I’m like Jesus. I’m like God. I have the same power as them,’” she continued. “And then, after that, there’s the third stage, where she feels like she’s above God, she’s above any laws. She’s galvanized by that feeling of power, and that’s great, in a way, because she’s so powerful. But it will also be her downfall, because she can no longer hear words of protest. She can no longer listen to them.”

Paul Verhoeven’s "Benedetta" stars Virginie Efira.
Paul Verhoeven’s "Benedetta" stars Virginie Efira.Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions

Since the film’s world premiere at Cannes in July, there has been much discussion about its use and depiction of female nudity, but both women said at a news conference during the festival that they didn’t have any qualms about shooting their sex scenes. Patakia said that during their first meeting in the middle of the casting process, Verhoeven had already created a storyboard to explain the logistics of the sex scene, “so it was very clear what we were going to see, how it was going to be, where the camera was going to be put.” She added, “And of course, we were very free to discuss with him whatever we wanted to change or not.”

Verhoeven told The New Yorker that he hadn’t heard of intimacy coordinators — separate people who works on film and television sets to choreograph sex scenes between actors — before he shot the film in 2018, but he said he worked closely with Efira and Patakia to ensure that the scenes weren’t added just for show.

Efira said: “We had a lot of interest in this scene. There’s not a lot of directors who can make really great sex scenes, because a sex scene is not just ‘Oh yes, there’s desire inside.’ It’s also illuminating something metaphoric, something about the relationship. For real intimacy, you must look at all the points, and you know that Paul Verhoeven will do that.”

Efira cited the memorable sex scenes in Verhoeven’s previous films “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” which she said aren’t “merely illustrative” but instead have meanings behind every movement.

Patakia said that, because she and Efira had so much trust in Verhoeven, they felt comfortable enough to go beyond the storyboards, proposing little additions to the choreography that made the scenes — and, ultimately, other parts of the film — even better.

“For me, I never really stressed about that, because I know how he treats sex scenes in all of his films. Sex is always very present, and it’s never about sex, and it’s never gratuitous, and it always narrates something else, and it always serves the story,” Patakia said. “And in this case, I was very surprised when I saw the film to find some of the sex scenes funny. I felt they had a funny aspect, and I was very pleasantly taken by that.”

While Verhoeven said that he “had no intention of making an activist movie,” there is still an undeniable feeling of liberty inside the walls of the 17th century convent in “Benedetta,” which was slightly insulated from a patriarchal society that condemned romantic relationships between women. Those relationships, Patakia said, were probably more likely to happen in closed spaces like the nunnery, away from the constraints of the outside world.

“For me, it’s also interesting to see that those institutions played a role in how women could take power,” Patakia said, “because the monastery was actually the only space where they could have some power, and it was a space of revolt and revolution in so many ways.”

Efira said a central question in all of Verhoeven’s movies is: To whom do women’s bodies belong? 

“The right answer is obviously that it belongs to women themselves. But as the religious institution with many resources, its political instrumentalization has sought to confiscate this notion from women’s bodies,” Efira said. “This is the struggle of ‘Benedetta.’ A schizophrenic struggles for her life, her desire and her faith. A struggle to find a way to be free.

“The film draws all these facts from a book by Judith Brown based on recovered manuscripts that are the first trial in lesbianism,” she concluded. “In the book, they outline how LGBTQ relationships were a crime and worse when it concerned women. It was seen as inconceivable. It was like they could not imagine something like that could exist.”

“Benedetta” is playing in theaters and will be available on demand starting Dec. 21.

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