Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Paul Verhoeven’s retelling of the story of Benedetta Carlini may surprise fans of his most mainstream English-language work (for example, Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers), but it is deftly executed and performed to perfection by a strong cast, all of whom raise the bar of a smartly-written tale.

The film is set in 17th century Italy, where the titular Benedetta is taken to Pescia to become a nun. After a humorous but important opening scene of Benedetta as a child, we are transported to her in adulthood, as she begins to have visions of Jesus that raise her standing amongst her fellow sisters in the convent, belying her secret desires to start a lesbian relationship with a younger nun, the illiterate Bartolomea.

Virginie Efra on the set of Benedetta with Paul Verhoeven

Virginie Efira is in electric form in the lead role here. She is an experienced actress who has flourished in popularity in recent years with the likes of In Bed With Victoria and An Impossible Love, as well as Verhoeven’s last film Elle.

Charlotte Rampling also puts in a powerful supporting performance as Abbess Felicita, with Daphné Patakia completing the trio of female key players in a promising early role.

If there are any criticisms for the film, it’s that it feels a little slow and saggy at the start of the film proper, although viewers are more than rewarded as the film builds to a tremendous crescendo at the end of the film. Indeed, as a comet looms over the convent and the sky lights up in red hues, the action on the ground seems to offer a bigger threat to those in Pescia.

It never feels overblown or rushed, nor overly simple. I am seldom excited by a period piece, less so one set in a convent, but this had me gripped to the end. It is highly recommended.

Firebird (Peeter Rebane, 2022)

Peter Rebane’s wartime romance Firebird courted controversy in the run up to the release, with Russian attempts to silence the film in the country. It is also being released into a market with little or no interest in a story showing any aspect of the Russian military, given the recent invasion of Ukraine. 

Watching it objectively is, therefore, an art in itself. 

It stars Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii as two military men – Sergey and Roman – who develop a secret romance, in spite of its illegality in Soviet Russia at the time. It’s a beautifully written piece of romantic drama, with the two leads doing well to portray the kind of electricity only found in such forbidden passions.

I won’t be looking into how much of the film is true to life and how much has been fabricated for the film. Doing that usually makes it far less enjoyable!

I did fail to deal with my utter dislike of any English-language film that sets itself in a foreign country, but then asks the actors and actresses to speak in English but with a hint of an accent. Tom Prior sounded close enough in the more placid scenes but as soon as there was any intense emotion in his wording, you could hear his Dorchester accent much clearer. In fairness to the wider film, the cast is primarily made up of Estonian actors and actresses, with a handful of the lead roles being taken by British actors.

Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya puts in a powerhouse performance as Luisa, a friend and lover caught in the middle of the two men. She turns in a particularly impactful scene at the end, which I can’t discuss without spoilers!

This is a film worth seeking out, even if you’re put off by the Russian/Soviet setting. Romance done well is always a joy to watch and this is no exception.