Is Benedetta a true story? What is reality and fiction in Paul Verhoeven’s film

The long delayed Benedetta, the most recent film event from acclaimed director Paul Verhoeven, is a period film that reaches new heights for the filmmaker. It is a story of religion, sex, and the failings of institutions brought together in one. He displays violence, eroticism and death in a way that only Verhoeven can. It is a truly unique work in the director’s already wacky filmography. One of the most remarkable things about it is that much of the film’s wild and chaotic storyline is pulled straight from the pages of history. It draws inspiration from real events to create a portrait of the time and the true story of the iconic subject that gave the film its title.


Movie stars Virginie efira like Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century Italian nun who began to have increasingly vivid and disturbing visions. It’s an open question whether she is just having a mental pause or if the visions are actually real. The potential importance of the visions causes Benedetta to gain stature, further examining her personal relationships which then threaten to consume her.


Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that this piece will take a fairly comprehensive look at the story behind Verhoeven’s story and the direction the film is taking. It should therefore be warned that certain details of the plot will be revealed from now on.

SPOIL ALERTThe film is adapted from the 1986 non-fiction book Shameless Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Stanford author and historian Judith C. Brown. The book draws on archival documents to retrace the life of Benedetta, abbess or superior of a convent of nuns. According to a review of the book in the New York Times, Brown found the documents in the Florence State Archives.

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These documents are largely transcripts of “inquiries,” or official forensic inquiries, which examined Benedetta’s life. The investigations ended with her indictment of creating “fraudulent miracles (including self-inflicted” stigmata “) and having an” erotic love affair with another sister of the Order of Theatines “. More importantly, Brown’s book represents one of the earliest documentations of lesbianism in modern Western history and is central to what the film most accurately portrays. As the most central part of the story, the relationship between Benedetta and Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) in the film aligns closely with Brown’s work and the story told. Obviously, Verhoeven being Verhoeven, there are a lot of creative liberties that are taken in the film that are not found in the documents of the time.



Image via Pathé

The main one is the use of a dildo carved into a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s a humorous device, meant to be a full cinematic embrace of the glorious blasphemy of Benedetta’s sexual liberation, although it’s not something that can be seen in any research done on the period. Of course, it is unlikely that such an item would ever be mentioned in the recorded history of the time. One can still hope that it did in fact exist and was not mentioned, although this is unfortunately highly unlikely.

Another key aspect is the plague which is wreaking havoc around the world. In the film, Benedetta warns that such a plague comes as punishment for sins. This is supported by historical documents, although some of the event sequences are rearranged for narrative drama purposes. The immediacy with which the plague begins to set in is much earlier than the actual timeline. Benedetta’s 1619 prediction came true, but not until several years after she announced it would happen. It was not until 1631 that the plague struck.



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Image via Pithe distribution

As for the investigations, they correspond closely to the truth (or, at least, to the checked in truth). Benedetta has indeed been the subject of multiple investigations for, among other things, having had a relationship with another woman from the convent. It was this scrutiny that ultimately led to her being severely punished, historians estimating that she spent 35 years in prison before dying of “fever and colic pain.” The conclusion of Verhoeven’s film plays out a little differently, with Benedetta choosing to return to the convent to face the aftermath and forfeiting the opportunity to escape.

The film creates a much more dramatic sequence of events leading up to this eventual return. Benedetta is almost burned alive for her actions and is barely saved before being completely consumed by the fire. She is only saved because the whole city decides to rise up and disrupt the procedures that would have resulted in her disappearance. This element of the story is not what the documents tell us, but rather exists to create an intense final act that puts its main character in great jeopardy. This marks one of the many points where Verhoeven composes everything far beyond what the truth based on the situation has actually told us.


It’s all part of the film’s general tendency to take aspects of reality freely and push them in new directions that suit its narrative goals. The basics are true, Benedetta was a real person who pretended to have visions and later believed to have a lesbian relationship. However, even though the film’s story is based on truth and takes many key pieces of the story, it still shapes it into a full-fledged story that either exaggerates or separates itself completely from what the historical record is. really as we know it.


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