As Bartolomea, Daphne Patakia turns Benedetta’s (Virgine Efra) world (and marriage to a deity) upside down. Their relationship, which is based on a real story, is forbidden not only because they are both nuns in a convent — but also because they are both women.
Despite its many, many, sex scenes, Benedetta is a thriller where the female leads are free from the oppressive stare of the male gaze, with director Paul Verhoeven bringing his trademark sex, blood, and sensory overload of symbolism to the big screen once again. From the surprising utilisation of wooden figurines to its harrowing torture scenes including ‘the pear,’ Benedetta is a movie where female sexuality and pain is almost permanently intertwined.
As the drama movie prepares for its UK release — in spite of a recent petition by a fringe Catholic community demanding for it to be banned — Daphne sat down with The Digital Fix to discuss a range of things including female agency, censorship, and her experience working with Paul Verhoeven and Virgine Efra on the horror movie.
The Digital Fix: Hi Daphne, congratulations on Benedetta! Let’s jump right into it — what attracted you to the project?
Daphne Patakia: I would have said yes to anything Paul Verhoeven proposed to me! From the beginning, when I did the casting, I hadn’t read the script. I just had two very weird scenes, like the scene in the bathroom [Editor’s note: Benedetta and Bartolomea loudly poo next to each other].
It was funny to just be in a casting process like that. Then, before meeting him [Verhoeven] I read the script, and I was so overexcited because, for me, Benedetta had all the ingredients from his previous films. I had. When I knew I was going to be in one of his films, I watched some of his others to prepare, and my favourite was Flesh and Blood.
It has many similarities with our film because it’s also in the Middle Ages, talks about the Plague, and it’s just very funny. And yeah, what attracted me to the project, and to working with Paul, was because I loved the sound of the movie. I love his cinema. I love his universe. I adore how he talks about sex, violence and everything in a very complex way. And I love how the female characters in his movies are always very ambiguous, complicated and real because he gives them back their complexity.
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When I read the script for Benedetta, I remember turning the pages and thinking, ‘There’s no scene in this movie that’s normal.’ Even in the scenes that would start out in a normal way, there was always a twist in the end and I couldn’t figure it out. I was very much looking forward to watching the movie while I was reading it.
TDF: How would you describe Bartolomea as a character?
DP: She’s very, very earthy. Very in touch with her instincts. She has a very savage aspect to her. She’s a young girl, who comes to the convent and finds liberty in there. And it’s funny because, for me, convents seemed to be quite a closed-off place.
And when I read the book on which Benedetta is based, there was a whole chapter on how girls were actually a lot more free in the convent because they would escape an abusive father, husband, or brother. I think she’s the only character who is really in touch with reality and her instincts. The only one who really knows what she wants, and is free.
TDF: Speaking of female agency, you said before you really love how Verhoeven writes female characters in his movies. Would you be able to expand on that a little?
DP: It’s the complexity. He dares to show female sex and pleasure in a way that I’ve never seen before in films: in a way that’s closest to what I’ve experienced as a woman, and from what I’ve heard from my friends. The characters are never objectified, they’re always active in the story and in what they do.
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His female characters are also plural in the sense they are multi-dimensional — they can be bad and good at the same time. You can never understand them. That’s what I find interesting, as well as the way he portrays women’s pleasure.
TDF: I’ve read that you didn’t have many rehearsals as Bartolomea and were plunged straight into the action on set — quite literally. How did you manage to build believable chemistry with Virgine Efra and ensure you were both on the same wavelength?
DP: We met before at casting, and I knew the actress [Virgine] and who she was. I had seen her in many films and admired her. I mean, it was a big fan of hers. So for me, it was not difficult to look at her like that [imitates passionate googly eyes] and act in love with her! [laughs]
When we met, everything was very, very easy. We were both very big fan fans of Paul’s films, and Paul, even with not seeing much, has this ability to create an ambience and sort of collective atmosphere where everybody including the actors and the technicians are all on the same wavelength somehow.
He gives you all this free space and you really want to follow him. I don’t know, it’s magic. It’s like, nobody says much, but you’re all in the same mood.
TDF: Obviously, there’s been a bit of resistance to Benedetta — it’s been banned in some countries, some fringe groups in the US protested its release last year and, most recently, a Catholic activist group has started a petition to prevent the release of the movie. What do you think of this response?
DP: I mean, for me, Benedetta is not a film about religion. It’s about so many other things too. I respect it if someone doesn’t like the film, and I can understand how you might be offended because it talks about so many subjects, so you can have many viewpoints. But censors are something that I don’t understand, and I don’t really know what to say. Censors always shock me.
TDF: What do you want people to take away from Benedetta?
DP: What’s interesting about the movie is that when you see it, at some points you might say, ‘It’s a love story.’ Then you might say ‘No, it’s a story about faith.’ Then you might say, ‘Is it a comedy now? is it serious? Is it a lesbian love drama? Is it a historical drama? Is it kitsch? Is it a movie making fun of itself?’
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For me, this movie is everything together, I think that’s how you should see the film — for its plurality. It’s not one thing. It’s many subjects, and many, many genres. So there’s many, many ways of seeing it. Many viewpoints.