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

Surprising twists at TJFF. Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, A Fortunate Man, The Golem

Posted in 1600s, 1800s, 1910s, Art, Denmark, documentary, Experimental Film, Horror, Judaism, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2019

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto. Hot Docs comtinues on through the weekend and TJFF — the Toronto Jewish Film fest — opened last night. This week I’m looking at three new movies with surprising twists, all playing at the TJFF. There’s a Golem (who’s not from the Hobbit), a historical romantic drama (that’s not based on an English novel), and a doc on an experimental filmmaker (that’s not about a man).

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

Dir: Chuck Smith

It’s the 1960s. Barbara Rubin is an outspoken teenager in Queens, NY. So outspoken, her parents lock her up in a mental hospital… which serves as her crash course in how to use drugs. She emerges as a savvy artist and drug expert and dives straight into the world of underground cinema, just heating up in New York. She studies under the wing of Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas. One of her first films creates a sensation. Shot against her own apartment’s white walls and floor, “Christmas on Earth” features naked men and women whose entire bodies are covered in either black or white paint, with their breasts and genitals painted the opposite colour. (Basically they writhe on the floor in a continual orgy.) But the two reels of film are projected simultaneously on the same screen – something never done before. She releases this film when she is still 18 years old.

Barbara and Jonas fly to Belgium for an experimental film competition, and cause an international scandal when she occupies the projection booth to show a banned movie — Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. Later she falls in with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, pop artist and experimental fimmaker Andy Warhol, the already legendary Bob Dylan, and the seminal band the Velvet Underground. She’s the one at the centre of these disparate figures who introduces them to one another, leading to some major artistic projects, collaborations  and record albums that never would have been made if it weren’t for her.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground is a fascinating documentary about an important figure who you’ve probably never heard of. Tragically, she died in her thirties, after adventures that bounced across the Atlantic and back again, spanning England, France and rural New Jersey, delving into sexual experiments, psychedelic expression, lost loves, and Jewish mysticism.

A really good movie.

A Fortunate Man

Dir: Billie August

(Based on the novel Lykke-Per by Henrik Pontoppidan)

It’s the late 1800s in Jutland, Denmark. Per Sidenius (Esben Smed) is a bright young man off to Copenhagen to study engineering. But his strict father, a fundamentalist preacher, withholds his money, to teach his headstrong son a lesson in humility. Broke and hungry, he struggles to survive in a slum, while attending university classes. He already knows what he wants to do: create a complex system of canals in Jutland to bring Denmark into the modern era. But is he too big for his britches?

Luckily he spies a member of the illustrious Salomon family in a café, and pitches his idea to Ivan (Benjamin Kitter). Ivan is intrigued and introduces him to his family, including the erudite and elegant Jakobe (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), heiress to the family fortune. Educated in Switzerland, Jakobe speaks many languages and looks down on the ambitious but clumsy Per. She is standoffish and rebuffs his attempts at wooing her – she’s engaged to a widower with two daughters. But he wins her over when he runs like a deer hunter beside her horse and carriage. They are engaged to be married.

Meanwhile, the Salomons and their friends express interest in investing in Per’s grand scheme. But first, Per – a young man who never apologizes – must humble himself before an important government figure. And the Salamons are a Jewish family, while Per comes from a long line of fundamentalist Protestant ministers. Are their backgrounds, classes, religions and philosophies too different? Will Per reconcile with his family? Will he learn to be humble? Or is he too brash and immature ever to fit into Copenhagen’s mannered society?

A Fortunate Man is a 2¾ hours long saga of the lives of Per Lykke – Lucky Per – and Jakobe Salomons, but I was never bored. If you devour these long historical dramas, but are getting tired of the same old, same-old british Victorians, this one introduces totally new worlds and characters. It feels like a Thomas Mann saga. I’ve seen the movie, now I think want to watch the whole miniseries. Great acting, beautiful period costumes and sets, and a compelling unpredictable drama

The Golem

Dir: The Paz Brothers

It’s 1673 in an impoverished, isolated Jewish shtetl village in eastern europe. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) is a young woman with pale skin, green eyes and bright red hair. She and her husband Benjamin lost a son, but are still in love. He studies religion all day — which is only open to men — while Hanna eavesdrops on lessons through cracks in the floorboards. She studies the Kaballah, a mystical text on numerology, in secret, on her own. But all is not well. One day she spies outsiders in the woods burning corpses. They are dressed in bizarre, birdlike masks and leather capes  It’s the plague! It hasn’t reached their village yet, but these outsiders are blaming them for its spread. The outsiders are led by Vladimir (Aleksey Tritenko) whose daughter is dying. He rides into town on horseback with a threat: Unless their village healer can save his daughter, he’ll burn down the village and kill them all.

Hanna decides it’s time to act. Using her knowledge of Kaballah, the 72 sacred names, some red string and a mound of fresh dirt, she creates a golem, the mythical Prague monster. The golem comes to life, but with a difference. Not a huge beast, this golem is just a little boy. But one that is fast, strong, and vengeful. He feels whatever Hanna feels, and kills whoever he thinks she doesn’t like. And when the golem is hurt she feels his pain. Can the golem save the village from destruction and death? Or will he end up killing them all?

The Golem is a new twist on the classic horror movie: It’s Fiddler on the Roof  but with a Stephen King killer-kid with special powers, An interesting combination I’ve never seen before. Is it scary? A little. There’s lots of blood, without too much gore. Hanni Furstenberg is great as Hanna, as is Konstantin Anikienk as the boy golem.

For a new take on horror, you should check out The Golem.

The Golem, Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, and A Fortunate Man are all playing now at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

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

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