Issue #57: Garden of Gethsemane ✝️
Benedetta + Rebel Hearts
Faith isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s often really hard — hence the “cross to bear” of it all. Organized religion is supposed to be a supportive community, but as our two selections this week show, it’s often just as much of a cudgel.
First up, Cate tackles the thorny Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s tale of faith and sexuality in a 17th-century nunnery. Then Zosha sets her sights on Rebel Hearts, the documentary about a group of California nuns who became protesters in the 1960s.
And as a bonus, this week we have an interview with director Maya Cozier about her debut feature She Paradise available exclusively on the site. Cate talked to her about building a contemporary teen narrative in Trinidad and making movies outside the industry. She Paradise is currently available to stream on VOD.
Now, go with God, and happy movie yelling!
Cate on Benedetta
You may have heard talk about the new “lesbian nun movie,” but Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s 17th-century follow-up to 2016’s dramatic Elle, is about much more than a clandestine affair. Loosely based on the 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown, the film is much more an exploration of faith and devotion than it is a voyeuristic dalliance in female sexuality.
The film focuses on Benedetta Carlilni (Virgine Efira) as a nun who is brought to an Italian convent as a young girl to be a “bride of Christ” under the care of the Abbess, Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Benedetta is devoted to the Virgin Mary and prone to visions of Jesus as her crusading knight and savior. When a new young woman Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) joins the abbey, Benedetta finds herself drawn to her, and her religiosity increases tenfold.
What follows is a story that plays both with the characters’ and the audience’s perception of the truth. As Benedetta’s visions develop, she also becomes marked by the stigmata, allegedly a sign that her body has been the site of a miracle. But she is missing the wounds from the crown of thorns — which suddenly appear when the oversight is pointed out. Was the Lord simply late to his own party? Or did Benedetta inflict the wounds herself? The answer is never made fully clear, and that’s the fun.
As the other nuns and various Catholic clergy hear of the increased number of fantastic events happening to Benedetta (she is also possessed by a demon who conveniently smites anyone who doubts her?) she gains political power in the abbey, eventually replacing Sister Felicita and becoming the new Abbess. It’s hard to know if even that is part of Benedetta’s plan, as it’s an honor bestowed upon her without asking. All of her visions are depicted from her perspective only, so they feel vivid and real to the audience as well. But enough of the nuns cast silent (or not so silent) doubt on Benedetta’s “miracles” that it’s impossible to know what is really happening. Are they Doubting Thomases? Or is Benedetta making the whole thing up?
Benedetta’s relationship with Bartolomea develops in tandem with her rise in station, as Benedetta’s new position gives them the latitude and privacy to continue their sexual affair. But despite the clergymen’s apparent fear of her inexplicable powers, it is Sister Felicita who makes clear that they support her because it is in their interest to do so. This is not a question of faith. It is a question of politics.
Frustrated by her waning sway in the city, Sister Felicita travels to visit The Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) and tell him of what has been happening, including the revelation of Benedetta’s sapphism. But the plague is spreading through Europe, and upon their return, they bring the sickness within the city’s walls, fulfilling one of Benedetta’s “prophecies” and cementing her power. But that alone cannot save her. When a key piece of evidence against her is revealed — a wooden statuette of the Virgin Mother whittled down into a dildo — Benedetta is sentenced to burn at the stake. But not before Bartolomea is sexually tortured for her own part in their “crime.”
As the film ends, the city descends into chaos and fighting between those who believe in Benedetta’s power and those who scorn it. But the satisfying thing about the story is that even then it refuses easy answers. Bartolomea asks Benedettae directly if she has concocted all her miracles, and still does not get a straight answer. Is it real? Is it delusion? Or is it made real by the belief of the faithful? It’s a knotty tangle of facts and suppositions that the film simply rejects altogether. And that’s precisely what makes the film worth the watch.
Zosha on Rebel Hearts
Not since how do you solve a problem like Maria have we gotten nuns this reactive. Or, at least, that’s what you’d think. The nun, after all, has a lionized place in the culture, one that is alternately saintly and vindictive. But as Rebel Hearts mentions at the beginning, by the mid-20th century, taking the habit wasn’t always out of piety; sometimes it just felt like getting “married to god” was better than being married to a man. And so by the timeline of this movie there were some 160,000 nuns in the U.S. alone. Which, when met with the counterculture of the ‘60s and questionable practices of the Catholic church — well, unstoppable force, immovable object, and the rest is history.
Or at least it will be once I describe what this movie is actually about: In the late 1960s, a group of increasingly “political” sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (reprimanded for things like demonstrating in Selma) found themselves questioning why their draconian way of life was increasingly out of step with the advances of the world. As they stand up for what they believe in — freedom to dress in something other than the habit, make the art they want, go to bed when they choose, speak during the daytime — they find their questioning challenges the church’s authority in ways they couldn’t predict.
What Rebel Hearts is good at is laying bare exactly what these women were “rebelling” against. As we come to learn, the rules of Catholic nuns were not only punitive they were burdensome. As the call for more and more Catholic schools grew, nuns were the ones tasked with teaching at these institutions — for no pay and with no training. Sisters just out of high school were plopped into a classroom with “70-80 kids” and told to teach them in whatever subject they were assigned to teach. Through interviews with some of the surviving nuns from IHM, we see how there was a growing discontent, especially among the younger generation who turned to the sisterhood with hope and found austere conditions.
The breadth of what Pedro Kos was able to access is pretty cool. Interviews shift in aspect ratio, new wrinkles form on faces that we see throughout the years. A “My Generation” cover by a female punk band plunked in the middle shows that rebellion has no limit, no generational restrictions. Headlines and audio from the nuns’ deliberations are sprinkled throughout, along with art that at first feels like Saul Bass but eventually reveals itself as based on the work by Sister Corita, one of the rebelling nuns who became a prominent artist in the midst of all this. We see (particularly through Corita’s work) that this was a labor of love. “I think [if we’re wanting more than the structure of the church can offer], therein is going to be our contribution to the church,” we hear one say during a meeting on the habit.
The problem is there’s a lot of threads to pull at in Rebel Hearts. There’s the historical context, the backstory of the local church and cardinal, the nuns’ story, their actions, the “what came next.” In a push to imbue as much as they can, there’s a sense of things slipping through the cracks, a missing facet to the story as a whole. It feels almost breathless as it shares the “radical” nature of the nuns and “disproving” stereotypes about them, that it misses what religious life actually meant to any nuns, let alone the true believers.
Yes, it’s cool that some nuns went into art or simply to escape the patriarchy. But what does it mean when they say that the “church did not deserve our devotion?” Their story is remarkable and mold-breaking. But I wish I could’ve gotten to know more about the individuals not just as a community but as people themselves. Rebel Hearts is a tricky documentary to recommend or dissuade people from because I am glad to have known the story, but I am not sure the film itself was the best forum for everything I learned, even with all the access and visuals it has. In between all the scattered gathering of information and clippings, Rebel Hearts loses the heart of its story: the women themselves.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: Finally, something fun in the tech dystopia, why does it cost so much to be single?, scoliosis is a disease for dorks, perhaps we should know less about Will Smith, Succession’s getting a lot more Oedipal, 30 going on 13, some dudes broke up and they’re sad about it, the “bimbo summit” has reconvened, and black women are missing from the story of Jagged Little Pill.
ZOSHA: The extremely intricate story of “Attack Helicopter”, and the person behind it. Who does it take to tweet NYT typos? The four f’s of trauma and how the Succession kids embody them. The much bigger problem of TikTok tics. An oral history of the time a Sonic balloon crashed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. House of Gucci: camp or not camp?
You know the drill: if you’re just finding this newsletter, do us a favor and subscribe. It feeds our fragile egos. And if you’re already a loyal reader, help us out and tell a friend. Happy movie yelling!