Organized religion. Films reviewed: Hand of God, Agnes, Benedetta

Posted in 1600s, 1980s, Breasts, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Horror, Italy, Lesbian, LGBT, Nun, Religion, Sex, Supernatural, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s December and we’re entering holiday season, so I thought it’s time to talk about movies involving religion. So this week I’m looking at three new movies with (small c) catholic themes. There’s an adolescent boy in 1980s Naples who witnesses the “Hand of God”, a lesbian nun in renaissance Tuscany who is in love with God, and another nun in the US who may be possessed by the Devil.

Benedetta

Co-Wri/Dir: Paul Verhoeven

It’s the 1600s in Tuscany Italy. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is a beautiful young  nun with blond hair and a quick wit. She was placed in small town convent as a young girl, paid for by a rich dowry her parents gave the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Now Benedetta is married to God, both metaphorically, and literally, in her mind. She goes through vivid spells, where she has sex with a violent Jesus after he slays all her attackers with a sword. She also has a streak of cruelty since she was told that suffering, by oneself and others,  brings one closer to God. The cynical Abbess thinks Benedetta’s trances are just an elaborate hoax. But everything changes when Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) a gorgeous young novice, appears at their doorstep. 

She is illiterate, and the victim of horrific abuses from her father and brothers. Benedetta takes her under her wing, nurtures her and schools her in divinity, reading and math. In exchange, Bartolomea sleeps with her, awakening hidden desires. Could this be love? Benadetta says she’s having chaste, spiritual sex with Jesus himself, not carnal passion with the young novice. And her spontaneous stigmata — bleeding that appears in her hands and feet like Jesus on the cross — attracts pilgrims and followers from far and wide seeking advice and cures. But when she’s caught using a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary as a sex toy, things take a turn for the worse. A cruel Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) arrives from plague-ridden Florence for an inquisition. Will he manage to wring a confession from the two women? Or will Benedetta’s spiritual powers protect her from being burned at the stake?

Benedetta (based on  actual historical records)  is a bittersweet and passionate look at the life and love of a lesbian nun in Northern Italy. It’s sexually explicit with lots of matter-of-fact nudity throughout the film as well as some horrific violence  (remember, this is a movie by the great Paul Verhoeven who knows well how to keep bums in seats). This is a visually stunning film, with sumptuous views of sunlit cathedrals, long-flowing costumes, diaphanous bed curtains and beautiful faces and bodies. Never has a convent looked so erotic. But it’s also a fascinating look at faith in the face of cynical religious practices. Benedetta is a beautiful and shocking film.

Agnes

Wri/Dir: Mickey Reece

Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is a young nun in a convent whose birthday celebration turns into a disaster. Now he’s tied to her bed, foaming at the mouth and speaking in strange otherworldly voices. What is going on?Enter Father Donoghue (Ben Hall). He’s a grizzled priest with a shady past, but also many successful exorcisms under his belt.  And he takes a newby with him, the devout Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) a divinity student who has yet to take his vows. Father Donoghue doesn’t believe that they’re actually possessed, just that they think they are. And only the elaborate song and dance of an exorcism will allow them to give it up. At the convent, Mother Superior (Mary Buss) a stickler for rules, is much less enthusiastic. She’s not comfortable with men under her roof, especially a young one without a priest’s collar. But she allows it to proceed. And the routine exorcism takes an unexpected turn.

The story picks up with Sister Agnes’s friend Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn). She left the convent after the incident. Now she works at two jobs — a convenience store and a laundromat, —and is trying to live a normal life. But she doesn’t know what to do or how to act. Can she keep the faith? Matters aren’t helped when she meets a cynical stand up comic at a local dive bar (Sean Gunn). Can he teach her what she needs to know?

Agnes is a look at faith, and self-doubt within the church. It starts as a genre pic, a conventional, low-budget horror, but it ends up as a deeper and darker melodrama propelled by scary undertones. It’s called Agnes, but it’s actually in two acts, the second part mainly about Sister Mary. It’s unpredictable and uncomfortable, and sometimes a bit bloody. This may be the first Mickey Reece film I’ve ever watched but I can see why this indie filmmaker has such an avid following. The film has an interesting mix of experimental film and conventional, even kitschy, horror, comparable to avant-garde filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it — and I think want to see more Mickey Reece.

Hand of God 

Dir: Paolo Sorrentino

It’s 1984. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is a young man at Don Bosco high school in Naples, Italy. He is precocious and well-read, — constantly quoting classic verse — but has neither friends nor sexual experience. He gets most of his advice from his big brother (who shares a room with him) and his parents. Dad (Toni Servillo) is a self-declared communist while his mom (Teresa Saponangelo) is a inveterate practical joker. Then there are all the odd-ball neighbours in their apartment building (including a former countess) and his even stranger family members. But foremost in Fabio’s eyes is his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She suffers from delusions which cause her to innocently expose her flawless naked body at unusual times — which provide fodder for the sexually-starved Fabio’s fantasies. 

It’s also the year when rumour has it that international soccer star Maradona may start playing for the local team — an obsession of most of his family. Third on Fabietto’s list — after sex and football — are the movies. Fellini is casting extras in Napoli — he goes to the audition —  while another up-and-coming director is shooting his latest film downtown. That director is also dating the very actress Fabio is dying to meet. Will he ever fulfill any of his wishes? And how will this pivotal year affect the rest of his life?

Hand of God (the title refers to a legendary goal scored by Maradona) is a coming-of-age story based on the filmmaker’s own recollections. It seems like the straight version of the popular Call Me By Your Name, another Italian feature. Set in the 80s, it’s also about a precocious adolescent’s first sexual experiences, situated within a quirky but loving family. There’s lots of 80s music, fashion and hairstyles to look at. Filippo Scotti also happens to looks a hell of a lot like Timothée Chalamet. That said, it is its own film, and fits very firmly within Sorentino’s work, including his fascination with celebrities as characters,

perennial actors like the great Toni Servillo  hapless men, as well as the requisite “naked woman with perfect breasts” who manages to turn up, in one form or another, in all his movies. Although Hand of God isn’t that original, and a bit contrived, it does have some very funny and a few honestly shocking scenes that should not be missed. I liked this one.

Hand of God and Benedetta both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings; and Agnes starts next Friday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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