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Verhoeven returns with subversive tale of lesbian nun in ‘Benedetta’

Period drama delivers sex, violence, and horrors of the Black Death

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Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in ‘Benedetta.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

There was a time when Paul Verhoeven was a big deal in Hollywood.

The Dutch filmmaker first attracted international attention during an early career in his homeland, with critically acclaimed movies like “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange,” which found an audience outside of the Netherlands and brought him greater opportunities in America, Once here, he adapted his style to fit a more commercial mold and forged a niche for himself with violent, action-packed sci-fi blockbusters, scoring major hits with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” before reaching a pinnacle with “Basic Instinct” – arguably still his most influential and iconic film.

Then came “Showgirls.” Although the Joe Eszterhas-scripted stripper drama is now revered as a “so-bad-it’s-great” cult classic, it was a box office bomb on its initial release, and its failure, coupled with the less-spectacular but equally definitive flopping of his next film, “Starship Troopers,” effectively put an end to his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

That was not, however, the end of his story. Verhoeven moved back to his native country (where he was hailed as a returning hero) and rebounded with the critically lauded “Black Book” before spending the next two decades developing and producing new projects with other filmmakers. In 2016, he assumed the director’s seat again, this time in France, and the resulting work (“Elle”) put him once more into the international spotlight.

Now, he’s back with another French film, and fans of his signature style – a blend of social satire, psycho-sexual themes, graphic violence, and near-exploitation-level erotic imagery that has prompted some commentators to label him as a provocateur – have every reason to be excited.

“Benedetta,” which receives its long-delayed (due to COVID) release in the U.S. on Dec. 3, is the real-life story of a Renaissance-era Italian nun (Virginie Efira), whose passionate devotion to her faith  – and especially to Jesus – sparks disturbing and dramatic visions. When young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) enters the convent and is assigned to her as a companion, it awakens a different kind of passion, and as their secret relationship escalates, so too do her miraculous episodes, which expand to include the physical manifestation of stigmata. Soon, despite the skepticism of the Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she finds herself heralded as a prophet by the other sisters and the local community, leading to controversy, investigation, and a power struggle that threatens the authority of the church itself.

Inspired by “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” Judith C. Brown’s biography of the real Sister Benedetta, Verhoeven’s latest work is perhaps his most quintessential to date. In his screenplay (co-written with “Elle” collaborator David Birke), the Dutch auteur – who is also a widely recognized, if controversial, religious scholar – gives free reign to his now-familiar obsessions, weaving them all together into a sumptuously realized period drama that delivers copious amounts of nudity and sex, bloody violence, and the horrors of the Black Death while exploring the phenomenon of faith itself. Is Benedetta a saint or a harlot? Is she chosen by God or mentally ill? Are her visions real or is she a fraud, cynically exploiting the beliefs of those around her in a bold-faced grab for power and glory? And if she’s lying, in the larger context of a world held firmly in the grip of a church that treats salvation as transactional and levies its presumed moral authority to unlimited financial and political gain, which is greater evil? Though the film strongly implies the answers lie somewhere between the “either/or” of absolutes, it shrewdly leaves the viewer to contemplate such questions for themselves.

What concerns “Benedetta” more than any esoteric debate is a sly-yet-candid commentary on the various levels of societal hierarchy and the ways in which the flow of power perpetuates itself through their devotion to maintaining the status quo. As Benedetta’s perceived holiness carries her upward through the strata, from unwanted daughter of the merchant class to Mother Superior and beyond, more important than the veracity of her claims of divinity are the shifting and carefully calculated responses of those she encounters along the way. Fearing the loss of their own power, they ally and oppose themselves in whichever direction will help them maintain it. It’s a Machiavellian game of “keep-away” in which those at the top will not hesitate to use economic class, gender, sexuality, and – if all else fails – torture and execution as weapons to repress those they deem unworthy.

Inevitably, the above scenario provides plenty of fodder for Verhoeven’s movie to make points about religious hypocrisy, systemic oppression, and the way white heterosexual cisgender men keep the deck eternally stacked in their own favor – all of which invites us to recognize how little things have changed in the five centuries since Sister Benedetta’s time. That, too, is right in line with the director’s usual agenda.

Ultimately though, the signature touch that makes the movie unmistakably his is the way it revels in the lurid and sensational. Verhoeven delights in presenting imagery designed to shock us, and key elements of the film – from hyper-eroticized religious visions and explicit lesbian sex, to the prominent inclusion of a blasphemous wooden dildo as an important plot point – feel deliberately transgressive. This should be no surprise when one remembers that this is the director who brought us not only “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” but also “The Fourth Man,” a homoerotic psychological thriller from 1983 still capable of making audiences squirm uncomfortably today; and while all this titillation may trigger the most prudish of viewers, it makes “Benedetta” into a deliciously subversive, wild-and-wooly ride for the rest of us. More to the point, it underscores the film’s ultimate observation about the empowering nature of sexual liberation.

Helping Verhoeven make maximum impact with this obscure historical narrative is a cast that clearly relishes the material as much as he does. In the title role, the statuesque Efira successfully creates a compelling and charismatic figure while remaining an enigma, someone we can believe in equal measure might be sincere or corrupt and with whom we can empathize either way; likewise, Patakia exudes savvy and self-possession, transcending moral judgment as the object of her affection, and the two performers have a palpable chemistry, which is made all the more compelling by their thrillingly contemporary approach to the characters. Rounding out the triad of principal roles is Rampling, a cinematic icon who brings prestige and sophistication to the table in a masterful performance as the Abbess; more than just a grounding presence for her younger co-stars, she provides an important counterbalance with a subtle and layered performance as a woman who has devoted her life to a belief in which she has no faith, only to find herself overshadowed by a charlatan.

“Benedetta” is not exactly the kind of film that’s likely to put Verhoeven back on the Hollywood fast track – it’s far too radical in its underpinnings for that. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form from a unique and flamboyant filmmaker we’ve missed for far too long, and his fans – along with anybody with a taste for provocative cinema – should consider it a must-see.

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With masterful remake, Spielberg tells a whole new ‘Story’

A skillfully constructed work of art that engages emotions at every level

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The Jets and The Sharks face off in ‘West Side Story.’ (Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox)

If you had reservations about the news that Steven Spielberg was remaking “West Side Story,” you aren’t alone. After all, with Hollywood’s track record for producing abysmal remakes of classic movies, it’s probably wise to be skeptical when a new one comes along.

That said, you can now rest assured that your skepticism is unfounded.

From its very first shot, in which Spielberg pays unabashed homage to the opening moments of “Citizen Kane” while establishing almost everything we need to know about the setting of the story we are about to see, “West Side Story” immediately dissipates any concern about the master director’s ability to deliver the blend of theatrical and cinematic artistry it deserves. With unparalleled fluency in the visual language of storytelling, he pulls us briskly into the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks – two teen street gangs, white and Puerto Rican, respectively, at war over territory in a Manhattan slum – and sets the stage for a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in which a family feud is exchanged for racism as the basis for a tale of young love thwarted by ancient hate.

For those unfamiliar, the plot centers on the romance of Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) – which is a problem because Tony is best friend to Riff (Mike Faist), leader of the Jets, and Maria is the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks. Despite the concerns of those around them – including Bernardo’s shrewd and strong-willed girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose) – the couple’s forbidden love endures even as the rival gangs plan to wipe each other out once and for all, setting into motion a tragic chain of events that will shatter the entire community.

Spielberg’s reverent remounting of the classic musical drama – conceived for Broadway in 1957 and first translated to film in an Oscar-winning classic directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise – achieves what doubters assumed would be impossible: a new rendering that succeeds in bringing a deeper, more contemporary sensibility to the material while leaving it essentially unchanged. A substantial amount of the credit for this goes to Pulitzer-winner Tony Kushner, whose literate and pitch-perfect adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ stage script fills in some of the story’s blank spots and expands its scope to illuminate the complicated economic and social issues that lie at its core.

Characters are fleshed out with more detailed back stories that bestow them with greater dimension and humanity; Tony, for instance, is on parole after a stint in prison for nearly killing a rival gang member in a fight, and we find out that Riff’s dad was as much of a hoodlum as he is. Additionally, the minor role of “Anybodys,” a female Jet originally depicted as a “tomboy” who is ridiculed and excluded by her gang mates for being a girl, is here given an embellished presence, which, aided by a powerful performance from Iris Menas, leaves little doubt she is struggling with gender identity at a time when there were no words for such things.

In a similar expansion, we find out that the neighborhood is set to be demolished ahead of the construction of Lincoln Center and the high-dollar housing that surrounds it, definitively planting the film in the same period as the original work while bringing forward the impact of urban upheaval and gentrification on the low-income and marginalized communities they continually displace.

With flourishes like these, Kushner’s screenplay brings “West Side Story” into the present day without removing it from the world that gave birth to it, emphasizing the connections and parallels between the two eras and reminding us just how relevant this American classic continues to be.

Similarly, the supremely talented cast is instrumental in reframing the story for a more evolved age – and not just because all the Latino roles are played by Latino performers this time around. Each of the young stars gives a heartbreakingly authentic performance, with DeBose’s Anita a particular standout who commands the screen in every scene she’s in (as she should!), and Zegler, a screen newcomer, providing a Maria who is as bold and self-possessed as she is luminous and delicate. But perhaps the film’s most magnificent performance comes from Rita Moreno, the original movie’s Anita, who here takes on the rewritten (and re-gendered) role of a neighborhood shopkeeper who serves as Tony’s surrogate parent; she imbues the character with a combination of warmth and hard-won wisdom, and her presence brings an element of having come full circle, a touch of nostalgia that links the film to its heritage and lingers with us long after the credits roll.

The same can be said of the much-revered score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (RIP, genius), which is here preserved and performed almost completely intact. Some of the songs are reordered within the story, and some of the singing is done by different characters than the ones we’re used to, but arranger David Newman and conductor Gustavo Dudamel succeed in delivering a rousing and passionate rendering of the show’s classic music – bolstered by the outstanding vocals of its cast, none of whom required the kind of dubbing that was standard practice when “West Side Story” graced the screen the first time around.

As for Spielberg, it’s hard to imagine another director who could pull this off. He pulls from his vast sea of cinematic influences to create a larger-than-life, skillfully constructed work of visual art that handles the spectacular and the intimate with equal deftness and engages our emotions at every level. He frequently references the classic films he loves, weaving nods to them into a tapestry that acknowledges his debt to the great filmmakers who came before him yet firmly asserts his own mastery of the medium. He even asserts his self-assuredness by invoking fond memories of the classic 1961 version, from the subtle but unmistakable emulation of its color palette and lighting choices in key scenes to the more obvious echoes of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography in the dancing – brilliantly restaged by Spielberg and choreographer Justin Peck in a style that emulates the athletic movement of the original’s dance sequences while leaping to heights of its own.

Yet despite all this deference to the past, Spielberg’s rendition of “West Side Story” excels and excites because it feels so firmly rooted in the here and now. His intention is to learn from the past, not dwell in it, and he challenges us at every turn to see the story with a contemporary – and sometimes uncomfortable – perspective. Most provocative, perhaps, is his choice not to use subtitles when characters are speaking Spanish; with that one, simple touch, he aims straight at the heart of the divisive turmoil in our culture today, thereby using a 64-year-old musical written by three gay men as it was always meant to be used – as a powerful condemnation of bigotry and hatred in a world that has seen enough killing.

Spielberg’s vision honors, even celebrates the beloved original film, yet simultaneously reiterates it into something thrillingly new. Even the most rigid purist can’t ask for a more faithful adaptation than that.

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Toxic masculinity gets its comeuppance in ‘Power of the Dog’

Cumberbatch, Dunst shine in unforgettable anti-Western

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Kodi Smit-McPhee goes for a ride with Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Say what you will about the Western being a tired genre, but when it comes to tracing shifts in the American cultural identity over long stretches of time, there’s still nothing quite like it.

Take, for example, “The Power of the Dog,” the newest effort from acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, now playing in theaters (and on Netflix) and topping the best-of-the-year lists of critics across the U.S. Set against the expanse of the American frontier of a century ago, it leans into time-worn tropes that have become wrapped up in our nation’s self-image, much the same as the great classic Westerns have done since the first flickering images of cowboys began to appear on screens in the very dawn of cinema history.

Some of these tropes, of course, have come to be seen as toxic. The way that Western movies have perpetuated racism by equating “Cowboys vs. Indians” to “Good vs. Evil” is perhaps the most clear-cut example; almost as obviously “problematic” is a presentation of manhood in which physical prowess is held up as the ideal, while emotional sensitivity or intellectualism are devalued as tell-tale signs of weakness. With 2022 right around the corner, outmoded and tone-deaf assumptions such as these make it easy to understand why many people think of the Western as an out-of-touch and irrelevant form of cinematic expression that deserves to be retired, once and for all.

Yet as Campion’s visually eloquent, quietly subversive adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel reminds us, Westerns have a way of reflecting our changing attitudes. Just as “The Searchers” or “Little Big Man” challenged our stereotyped ideas about indigenous people, “The Power of the Dog” forces us to confront our acceptance of the rough-and-rugged cowboy as a paragon of masculinity and suggests he might have just been an overbearing bully, all along.

The cowboy in this case is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who along with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) owns a lucrative cattle ranch in 1925 Montana. He’s the embodiment of the “alpha” mentality, presiding over his life and business with absolute authority; when George marries a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her home – along with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man with aspirations of becoming a surgeon – he browbeats the newcomers to his household and treats them with open contempt. He takes particular delight in tormenting Peter, whose slight build and effeminate manner make him an easy target for ridicule, but an awkward encounter in the woods sparks a change of heart; he decides to take his new nephew under his wing, hoping to turn him into a “real man” and perhaps reconnect with a tender side of his own nature he has long kept buried.

A reading of that brief synopsis is enough to make it clear that Campion’s movie plays on other tropes besides those found in Westerns. Traditional queer narratives in American culture inevitably lead us to expect an “unexpected” romance between these two initially antagonistic men, and a subsequent blossoming that will allow the hardened rancher to undergo a heartwarming transformation not unlike that of the Grinch.

But “Power of the Dog” is not that kind of queer narrative, just as it’s not the kind of Western where gunslingers resolve their conflicts with a climactic showdown on a dusty street. It leaves little doubt that romance – or some stunted, self-loathing version of it, at least – is on Phil’s mind once he hits upon the possibility of it; but it’s also keenly aware that men like Phil, who hide their own presumed desires under a mask of reflexive intolerance and are only willing to explore their secret side if they can maintain plausible deniability, are a big part of the reason why gay men – or anybody else who has been repeatedly lumped together in the category of “other” and turned into social outcasts or worse – have been subjected to so much bigotry and abuse for so very long.

To be sure, he’s a product of his time and place – but where a film from a different era might have given him the benefit of the doubt and helped him to find the redemption we’ve been conditioned to think he deserves, this one is not ready to let him get off scot-free. It doesn’t matter if he’s queer – he’s also a narcissistic tyrant who maintains his own assumed superiority by terrorizing and belittling those around him (his nickname for his brother is “Fatso,” which tells you all you need to know) to keep them submissive and docile. The days when such individuals got a pass for their bad behavior feel very much like a thing of the past in a world still reeling from the influence of Trumpism and other such movements, and Campion’s movie works its leisurely way to a conclusion that seems designed to make an example of its charismatic but unsavory central figure. Compassion is afforded, but it’s the kind of compassion that might be expressed by putting a wounded animal out of its misery.

Campion’s writing and direction of this deceptively pastoral period drama is as flawless as might be expected from a filmmaker of her caliber; she blends the awe-inspiring landscape (stunningly photographed by Ari Wegner, with New Zealand’s breathtaking natural beauty doubling for the Wyoming badlands) with the quietly jarring strains of Jonny Greenwood’s superb score to reinforce the roiling tensions below the placid surface of the story, and shrewdly trusts our own preconceptions to keep us from seeing the obvious indications of an ending that is being set up for us right in plain sight.

The cast, too, is uniformly outstanding. Cumberbatch turns in a powerhouse performance that’s as boldly unsympathetic as it is unforgettable, carrying himself with a ramrod-straight bearing that is just affected enough to suggest he’s not all that he seems but defies you to call him out on it; deservedly, he’s high on the list of likely Best Actor contenders for the next Oscars. Also award-worthy are Plemons, whose quiet underplaying of the good-hearted George helps him steal almost every scene he’s in, and Smit-McPhee, whose Peter exudes a refreshingly contemporary understanding and wisdom while retaining just enough enigma to keep us guessing about his motives. Rounding out the main ensemble, Dunst earns both our sympathy and respect in a role that might easily have been overshadowed in the hands of a lesser actress.

“Power of the Dog” is unquestionably a great film, assembled by a proven master at the peak of her powers and augmented by impressive performances – but does that mean the Western still has something to offer in a world more “woke” than it was in the heyday of the genre? For all its artistry, it tells a subtle story – and a bleak one, at that, albeit one that leaves us with a somewhat conflicted sense of satisfaction. It’s likely to leave some viewers cold – especially fans of a genre known for action, adventure, and the reinforcement of traditional values. In this way, perhaps it’s better characterized as an “anti-Western.”

Whatever label you decide put on it, it deserves your attention.

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‘Passing’ is one of the year’s best films

Brimming with intense racial and sexual tension

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A scene from 'Passing.' (Screen capture via IMDB)

You wouldn’t think a quiet, 138-minute film centered on two women’s friendship, where the joking use of a racial epithet is more shocking than a gunshot, would imprint its images and ambiguities in your head. But that’s what “Passing,” director Rebecca Hall’s debut movie of the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, does. It’s now in limited theatrical release and streaming on Netflix.

“Passing,” produced and written as well as directed by Hall, takes place in 1920s Harlem. It tells the story of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), two light-skinned Black women who were childhood friends.

They haven’t seen each other for years. Clare was raised by an alcoholic father. After he died, she was sent to live with her white racist aunts. She escapes from them, passes as white and marries John (Alexander Skarsgard), a white banker. They have a daughter. John has no idea that Clare is Black or that his daughter is biracial. Clare lives well. The couple travel. Their daughter goes to a school in Switzerland. Clare is good at passing. But John hates Black people.

Irene lives in a lovely townhouse with her handsome husband Brian (Andre Holland), who is Black and a doctor, and their charming sons. A maid helps her to clean and maintain the elegance of her home. She does volunteer work for the (fictional) Negro Welfare League.

Unlike Clare, Irene doesn’t pass as white. Except, occasionally. As she does, on the warm day, when she and Clare unexpectedly encounter each other at a posh Manhattan hotel after not having seen each other since their youth.

Clare is there because John has business in New York, and Irene, hot after a day of shopping, has stopped by for a refreshing spot of tea. Irene, at this moment, is like Clare, passing as white. Because, she knows, through unwritten Jim Crow, that she would be turned away if the establishment’s staff knew she was Black.

“Passing,” which is in black and white, is luminous! Hall has said in interviews that she shot it in black and white to reflect the films of the 1920s and 1930s. Hall has succeeded brilliantly. “Passing” is visually stunning.

The racial and sexual tension in “Passing” is stunning in a different sense.

As Clare and Irene sit, sipping tea and catching up, John, Clare’s husband comes by. At first glance, he seems like a nice, if clueless, white guy. Until, not realizing Clare is Black (thinking her complexion is olive), he jokingly greets her with a racial slur.

The epithet is as jarring as an unexpected snake hiss. As a moviegoer, you’re laughing and crying inside as you watch Irene laugh at John’s racial slur until she cries.

The story in “Passing” is told from Irene’s perspective. Often, we watch Clare and Irene gaze intently at each other. It feels as if they are attracted to each other.

But, true to the spirit of the novel on which the film is based and with the time in which  “Passing” is set, whether or how they were intimate isn’t made explicit.

At times, Irene believes that Clare could be having an affair with Brian. 

Despite the ambiguity, it is clear, though, that Irene and Clare have an intense friendship.

“Passing” won the U.S. Narrative Feature Jury Award at the 33rd LGBTQ film festival New Fest, “Variety” reported. The honor is well deserved. 

It is highly likely that Thompson and Negga will receive well-earned Oscar nominations for, respectively Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Nella Larsen, an acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer, and  “Passing” languished in obscurity for decades, after the novel was published to critical acclaim. 

Hall’s film makes Larsen’s work from nearly a century ago come alive in our time on the screen. See “Passing.” It’s one of the best films of the year. 

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