Bartolomea and Benedetta

How funny is Benedetta meant to be? Is it a serious film examining the mindset of religious people of a different time, or a nunsploitation flick straining every sinew to get its stars out of their clothes and comically at it?

It’s an adaptation of Judith C Brown’s book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Reinaissance Italy. But tellingly, Gerard Soeteman, who worked on the original, never-realised adaptation with director Paul Verhoeven in the 1980s, had his name removed from the credits when he realised which way Verhoeven and new screenwriter David Birke were taking the material for the 2021 version.

In bawdy, winkingly vulgar style, not unlike Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, the story follows a clever, self-possessed young girl into a convent in 17th-century Italy. Eighteen years later and fully grown (and now played by Virginie Efira), the young Benedetta’s austere life of poverty, chastity and obedience is regularly being punctuated by visions of Jesus Christ. In one, as she runs towards him ecstatically, she shouts “j’arrive” (“I’m coming”). In another, Jesus slays snakes threatening Benedetta and then kisses her on the mouth. No need for Freudian interpretation of these dreams, Verhoeven and Birke have done it all for us.

Benedetta’s dangerously sublimated sex drive – “your worst enemy is your body” she is told on first arriving at the convent – is cranked further into action when new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives and is put in her care. A sexual relationship is soon in full swing. As if that weren’t enough, the stigmatic wounds of the crucified Christ also start appearing on Benedetta’s body. Whether sent by God or inflicted by Benedetta herself is left half open.

These wounds are the meat in a stew of intrigue involving the convent’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling), the abbess’s jealous daughter (Louise Chevillotte), a local provost hungry for power (Olivier Rabourdin) and the regional papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who on learning of the goings-on at the convent – and he doesn’t know the half of it – decides to come down hard on Benedetta and bring the nonsense to a stop.

The nuns at work, weaving
The nuns at work, weaving

As if this weren’t enough, bubonic plague is ravaging the land, and is threatening to arrive at the convent of Pescia at any minute. Oh, and there’s a comet in the sky, which is surely a portent for something. Baroque and roll!

This story is all told with a typical Verhoeven focus on bodily functions. A fart here, a pregnant woman squeezing milk out of her tit there, a statuette of the Virgin Mary carved into a dildo, Benedetta and Bartolomea sitting side by side on the earth closet taking a dump together… plus more naked flesh than seems strictly necessary, even to tell a story about two nuns ravishing each other each night while their fellow sisters sleep.

Even for the director of the notoriously nudy Showgirls, it all comes over as excessive. But while the visuals tug in one direction, the screenplay heads in the other, insisting that this is an earnest undertaking. The acting, too, is straight-down-the line-serious, and while Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia get most of the camera’s attention, Charlotte Rampling is impressive as the haughty-to-humbled abbess.

The same cannot quite be said of the cinematography, which hangs somewhere in space unsure whether it’s meant to be a hard-focus depiction of an actual reality, or the ambiguous soft focus of soft porn. Anne Dudley’s score is also all over the place, devolving regularly to little more than religious vamping… a de profundis from the heart of a bewildered composer.

At one level it’s all great fun, even if the balance of the film is upset by the nudity, some of which is straight-up ridiculous – why, for example, are Benedetta and Bartolomea out wandering naked in a field towards the end? This isn’t the nudity-as-power of other Verhoeven films like Basic Instinct, Showgirls or Black Books, but something else. And while it’s possible to see the whole thing as a big satire/pastiche of the 1970s arthouse/soft porn crossover, there’s also the strong suspicion that Verhoeven’s dirty old man has simply won out over the serious (if playful) auteur.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 12 – The Superlative Seven

Charlotte Rampling and Diana Rigg


Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed are the standout names in The Superlative Seven, a title suggesting this episode is going to borrow heavily from The Magnificent Seven of seven years before. In fact it’s more a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with a bit of Hunger Games thrown in (appropriately, since a five-decades-older Sutherland would be prominent in that).


Blessed was probably the best known of the three at the time, having been a key cast member of the hit UK show Z Cars, though Rampling was close behind, Georgy Girl having made her a name the year before. Sutherland? More a familiar face than a big name, TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic making up much of his CV.


The Superlative Seven has cinematic ambition, though, and director Sidney Hayers does as much as he can in the confines of a studio to suggest scale, movement and the passing of time in a plot that sees the action move from a fancy-dress party on a plane to a big old house where the seven invitees are set against each other, six oven-ready coffins indicating the ultimate destination for most of them.


The introductions are done swiftly – Sutherland on a technicolor red set as the dojo of a martial arts school, Steed in an admiral’s uniform, full red (again) jacket and cockaigne hat, Rampling one of the other guests Steed meets when he first gets on the plane where the party is taking place.


“I’m Wild,” she purrs. “Hana Wild.” Rampling looks anything but, a slip of a girl at 19, she looks half afraid of the camera, but it’s a decent enough attempt at corny humour by writer Brian Clemens.


John Steed in admiral costume
Admiral John Steed is piped aboard


Last man on the plane is Blessed, dressed as an executioner, complete with big chopper – a gag Clemens leaves in his box. This rum gang – a pretend bullfighter and big game hunter among the generally not-very-PC partygoers – soon learn that each has been invited to this party by a different host. When they go to ask the pilot what’s going on… there is no pilot. The plane is being flown automatically. Hi-tech whizzbangery to impress the 1967 viewer.


Soon the plane has touched down on a mystery island, where Steed and fellow invitees have to kill each other in order to avoid death themselves – that’s the Hunger Games bit. Sutherland, he’s the bad hat controlling the “game”, and watching everything play out via CCTV (more whizzbangery).


Diana Rigg has clearly been given the week off, with Mrs Peel only turning up right at the end, in the nick of time as luck would have it, to save the day. She’s also dressed in red actionwear (athleisure, we’d probably call it today), this being the key colour of the episode.


This is the sort of plot that Clemens could churn out in his sleep – eccentric characters in a half-borrowed scenario with a sprinkling of paranoia to add spice.


That it works so well is largely down to director Hayers, who’s determined to keep things moving, helped by art and costumes departments who are all pushing in the same cinematic direction.


That’s reinforced when you watch the episode on the Canal Plus restored discs I’ve got. The colours zing, the image is pin sharp. Too sharp at times – Patrick Macnee is replaced by a stunt double every time the action gets going. It’s something you wouldn’t have noticed on TV at the time, but 50+ years on, on a big high-resolution TV, it’s glaringly obvious.






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© Steve Morrissey 2020




Heading South

Charlotte Rampling and Ménothy Cesar sit on a bed




Charlotte Rampling often gets a free pass in films. Sometimes that’s for all the right reasons, such as her association with great directors such as Visconti, Lelouch or Ozon. Sometimes for the wrong ones – the more generalised cultural cringe before the French, with whom she’s also had a long association. The films she’s in often get the free pass too. Let’s take this drama, ostensibly something very daring about matronly white women heading to Haiti to be boned by the local black youth. There are many ways of describing this film but in all honesty it is an interminable drag and actually at its most boring while Rampling and fellow harpies (including Karen Young and Louise Portal) bicker over who’s going to get plugged by fit beach boy Legba (Ménothy Cesar). The shocking premise has actually been done to death – I remember reading a story in Elle magazine on the subject years ago. “I always told myself that when I grew old, I would pay young men to love me,” Rampling’s character tells a fellow pluggee at one point. “I just didn’t think it would happen so fast.” Yes, there is poignancy in Heading South and, if you can get past the bored white flesh evading the ageing effects of UV light under parasols, there’s also a veiled discussion of the effects of tourism on poor countries, and how money buys power. But as philosophical meat this is crass, familiar stuff. Watching Heading South you yearn for a chase sequence, a dramatic switcheroo, even a change of the tide.


© Steve Morrissey 2006


Heading South – at Amazon