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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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SAG Award slate points to a not-very-queer Oscar night

‘Power of the Dog’ snubbed in Best Cast category

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Can Lady Gaga turn a SAG nomination into Oscar gold? (Photo courtesy of United Artists Releasing)

It’s mid-January, and pandemic or not, Hollywood’s “awards season” has kicked off in earnest.

The announcement last week of nominations for the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards means that it’s now time for armchair pundits, bookmakers, and film journalists to start compiling their predictions for the Oscars, which everyone knows are the main event when it comes to Hollywood awards.

This should be a good-natured exercise in fun, driven by a love for the movies and a genuine appreciation of the artistry of the people who make them – but at a time when the film industry is under deep scrutiny for diversity and inclusion, things can get complicated. 

Since they are decided by members of a union that also makes up a substantial portion of the Academy’s voting body, the SAG Awards are considered a reliable bellwether for the Oscars race, though with fewer categories than the Academy, not to mention the complex interplay of personal loyalties and working relationships that undoubtedly influence their choices, they still leave room for a lot of speculation. Still, their record for aligning with the Academy’s eventual choices makes it worth factoring them in as we attempt to assess the chances for our favorite contenders to earn Oscar gold.

For Blade readers, of course, the key question is likely to be about which of the year’s LGBTQ movies are going to snag wins. Unfortunately, the answer to that question might be pretty bleak.

Of the 22 titles nominated within the SAG Awards’ six film categories, only one – “The Power of the Dog” – could be said to have any significant queer content. Others, like “West Side Story”, “tick, tick… BOOM!”, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, “Being the Ricardos”, or “House of Gucci”, have either LGBTQ-relevant elements in their narratives or obvious LGBTQ appeal in their subject matter, and some have both. But there is no “Moonlight” or “Call Me By Your Name” on which to hang the hope of a definitively queer winner in any category.

In the Best Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture race – which is essentially the SAG Awards’ equivalent of Best Picture – the biggest surprise is the omission of “Power of the Dog.” Filmmaker Jane Campion’s dark and subtle western about the toxic relationship between a domineering older rancher and his effeminate new nephew has been a fixture in the top categories at awards ceremonies so far, but despite earning nods in other categories, it was shut out of the competition for this one. That leaves little in the way of LGBTQ inclusion among the five nominees (“Belfast”, “CODA”, “Don’t Look Up”, “House of Gucci”, “King Richard”), but it doesn’t keep “Power” from being a front-runner at the Oscars, where the Best Picture category can include up to 10 contenders. Even if all five of the SAG choices make it into the Academy’s race, Campion’s movie is almost certainly going to be there, too. The same can probably be said of “West Side Story”, another presumptive front-runner, but given its track record of wins so far, “Power” still stands as our favorite to take the honor on Oscar night.

For Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Motion Picture, the lineup includes several films of LGBTQ interest. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which earned a nod for star Jessica Chastain, is a biopic that takes time to address its real-life protagonist’s surprising legacy as a queer ally; “Being the Ricardos,” though it contains no directly LGBTQ material, has the obvious appeal of focusing on Lucille Ball, a show biz icon beloved for decades by the gay community, who is portrayed with delicacy and respect by nominee Nicole Kidman; Jennifer Hudson’s star turn as Aretha Franklin – another legendary diva with queer appeal – snagged her a nomination for “Respect”; and finally, Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” grabbed another nod here for Lady Gaga, the only out member of the LGBTQ community in the running. It would be great to see Mother Monster take home this prize, but she’s got stiff competition; based on honors given out so far, she stands as a frontrunner, but with Hudson and Kidman in the mix, not to mention awards darling Olivia Colman (nominated for “The Lost Daughter”), it feels like anybody’s race. Win or lose at the SAGs, Gaga still has a strong chance of being included in Oscar’s Best Actress category – as does out actress Kristin Stewart, whose performance as Lady Diana in “Spencer” puts her solidly on the Oscar shortlist, despite being snubbed here.

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Motion Picture might also be wide open. A few weeks ago, Benedict Cumberbatch would likely be the clear favorite to win for his towering performance as the closeted rancher in “Power of the Dog”, but after fellow nominee Will Smith’s win at the Golden Globes for “King Richard” his chances seem less sure. It’s a category that includes two Black actors – Smith and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) – and on a slate that is otherwise dominated by white nominees it’s one of the few opportunities for the SAGs to diversify its winners’ circle. It’s also worth mentioning that Andrew Garfield, nominated for “tick, tick… BOOM!”, won the Globes prize for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, which combined with widespread acclaim for his performance makes him a strong contender to pull off an upset from either of the two frontrunners – a scenario likely to be repeated at the Academy Awards. In any case, Washington and Javier Bardem (nominated for playing Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos”) are probably the dark horses here.

In the supporting categories, things look even less promising for LGBTQ inclusion. Nominated for “West Side Story” is Ariana DeBose, who is the clear favorite to win as Female Actor, though Kirsten Dunst’s quietly devastating performance in “Power of the Dog” has been accumulating considerable buzz, too. Both will likely be included at the Oscars as well. On the Male Actor side, the most clearly queer-friendly choice is Kodi Smit-McPhee, also for “Power of the Dog”; it’s a wild card category, skewed by the presence of big names (Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper, nominated for “The Tender Bar” and “Licorice Pizza”, respectively) who might gain votes on the basis of star status alone, but Smit-McPhee has made a consistently strong showing throughout the awards race so far – and frankly, deserves to win just for his ability to hold his own opposite the charismatic Cumberbatch. He’s our favorite in the category not just here, but also on Oscar night.

The SAG Awards, of course, also present awards for television. Those don’t have much bearing on the Oscars, but it’s worth mentioning that the nominees there include LGBTQ-relevant favorites like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Succession”, “Hacks”, “The White Lotus”, and “Halston.” We’ll take a closer look at those when the Screen Actors Guild makes their presentation, which will air live on TNT and TBS, on Sunday, Feb. 27.

Meanwhile, it’s time to start working on those Oscar predictions. Ready, set… GO!

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‘Being the Ricardos’ pops with excitement of 1950s TV

Acclaimed film is Sorkin at his best

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Nicole Kidman in 'Being the Ricardos.' (Screen capture via Amazon Prime Video)

If the cold and COVID have brought you down, check out “Being the Ricardos.” The entertaining film, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Being the Ricardos” is the TikTok of a week in the McCarthy era that was a season in hell for gay icon Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem).

Ball was a gay rights supporter. “Some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met or read about are homosexual,” she told People magazine in 1980.

“I Love Lucy,” the 1950s sitcom starring Ball, was the most-watched show on TV.

From 9 to 9:30 on Monday evenings, Americans watched Lucy and her bandleader husband Ricky (Arnaz) Ricardo and their best friends Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred (William “Bill” Frawley) Mertz. They laughed at Lucy’s antics – such as when she and Ethel can’t keep up on a chocolate factory assembly line. “I Love Lucy” is streaming now on Hulu, and clips of it are on YouTube. 

“Being the Ricardos” takes place during the filming (from the table read to performing it in front of a studio audience) of an “I Love Lucy” episode.

As work on the episode begins, Arnaz and Ball are distressed to hear a “blind” item on right-wing gossip-monger Walter Winchell’s popular radio show. In the heyday of McCarthyism, Winchell tells America that a “top” comedian has Communism connections.

Ball and Arnaz know that being labeled a Communist could ruin not only your career but that of anyone associated with you.

Ball, who lived from 1911 to 1989, had a rough childhood. After her father died when she was 10, Ball was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather was a socialist. Out of respect for her grandfather, in 1936, Ball registered to vote as a Communist.

Previously, the House Un-American Activities Committee had compelled Ball to testify. After she testified, they told her that they had cleared her of suspicions of being a Communist.

Ball and Arnaz are gobsmacked to hear from Winchell that she’s under suspicion again. Other than once checking a box for the Communist Party in the 1930s, Ball hasn’t had anything to do with Communism. “My grandfather cared about the working man,” Ball tells the executives from CBS and Philip Morris (the program’s sponsor).

Much of the suspense of the movie lies in rooting for Ball to be cleared of HUAC’s baseless charges. But Sorkin, taking some liberties, has added on added layers of tension.

In real life, these events didn’t happen at the same time. But, in “Being the Ricardos,” while Ball is dealing with HUAC, she discovers that she’s pregnant with her second child.

The CBS and Philip Morris execs are freaked by this news. It’s the early 1950s, and people on TV (even if they’re as happily married as the Ricardos) sleep in twin beds. What will America do if they see a pregnant woman on TV? What do you mean, you’re 12 weeks pregnant, the suits ask Ball and Arnaz. “It means 12 weeks ago, I fucked my husband,” Ball says.

In yet another twist, Ball is dismayed when “Confidential,” the TMZ of its time, comes out with a story showing Arnaz with a sex worker.

There has been controversy about the casting of Kidman as Ball and Bardem as Arnaz. Because Kidman isn’t a comedian and Bardem is Spanish and Arnaz was Cuban.

Perhaps, because she’s not doing an impersonation, I think Kidman is terrific as Ball (as Ball off-screen and as Ball playing Lucy Ricardo). She won the Golden Globe this week for Best Actress in a Drama for the role.

As a white woman, I don’t feel comfortable weighing in on the controversy surrounding the casting of Bardem. But to me he nails it in his portrayal of Arnaz.

The other actors in the film are also terrific, especially, J. K. Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and Tony Hale as (showrunner) Jess Oppenheimer.

 “Being the Ricardos” is Sorkin at his best. It pops with screwball banter and the excitement of early 1950s TV. It’s not “Vertigo,” but you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen.

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‘Potato’ charms with tale of gay Russian immigrant and his mom

Awakening to queerness during collapse of the Soviet Union

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Luminous Pariah and Tyler Bocock in ‘Potato Dreams of America.’ (Photo courtesy Dark Star Pictures)

January can be a difficult month for film buffs. With so many awards contenders clamoring for your time and attention, there is certainly no shortage of titles among them to choose from, so it’s not a question of slim pickings. Sometimes, though, watching one “prestige” movie after another for an entire month can feel a little bit like being a student overloaded with homework; even if you’re studying a subject you like, you still need to take a break and do something just for fun every now and then.

Fortunately, in today’s ever-hungry market for fresh streaming content there are new choices to be had even in the middle of Awards Season, and this month’s pick of the crop is exactly the kind of fun, quirky, off-the-beaten-track queer story to provide the perfect palate cleanser when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the heavier fare queued up on your “watch next” list – though considering that it’s the tale of a gay Russian boy and his mother who flee a life of repression and hardship in their native country by emigrating to America, you might not expect it to be.

Set in the 1980s, “Potato Dreams of America” is an autobiographical offering from writer/director Wes Hurley. The “Potato” of the title is its lead character, a Vladivostok boy obsessed with American movies who is awakening to his queerness during the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother Lena is raising him on her own, and as a prison doctor who is daily witness to the violence and hardship of being an adult male non-conformist in Russian society, she fears for his future safety. She decides to market herself as a mail order bride, and before long she and Potato are on their way to Seattle – where they will have to learn how to navigate life in America, a whole new culture with forms of oppression all its own.

Admittedly, it’s a synopsis that reads pretty bleak – but that’s precisely why “Potato Dreams of America” turns out to be such a delight. Rather than delivering the stark immigrant drama we’ve come to expect from stories such as this one, it turns those expectations upside down by offering twist after twist (along with a wry and consistent sense of humor) that keep it from becoming a predictable tale of woe and turn it instead into something much less dreary.

To begin with, there are the two central characters, a memorable pair of plucky souls who win our attention and our sympathies with their against-the-grain attitudes and refusal to give up on their dreams. They are surrounded by an ensemble largely made up of broadly drawn eccentrics; there’s Grandmother Tamara (Lea DeLaria), a no-nonsense traditionalist who lovingly doles out toxic cultural assumptions with her grandmotherly advice; there’s also John (Dan Lauria), Lena’s rigid and seemingly conservative American husband whose fundamentalist views might just be a smokescreen for a life he has always kept hidden. Characters such as these provide a layer of satire and social commentary but remain grounded enough in the emotional arc of the story to serve as believable characters, thereby investing them with enough humanity to soften the sharpness around their edges. This is even true of Jesus – or rather, the imaginary version of Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) Potato concocts as he struggles to come of age, whose serene aloofness is somehow made completely relatable by the good-natured gay insouciance with which he is played.

Likable characters are a big part of the movie’s charm, but the infectious sensibility that wins our hearts comes straight from the filmmaker himself. In telling the story of his own life – albeit a highly stylized version of it – he gives full rein to the love for cinema, and specifically American cinema, which fueled his own young dreams of America and ultimately led him to a career behind the camera that includes two seasons of the critically acclaimed comedy series “Capitol Hill” (starring Jinkx Monsoon, Ben DeLaCreme, Waxie Moon and Robbie Turner). 

His movie is full of cinematic flourish, indulging in bold strokes to help its narrative unfold. Most striking of these is the choice, midway through the film, to swap out both the leading players for different actors – Potato and Lena in Russia are played, respectively, by Hersh Powers and Sera Barbieri, and in America by Tyler Bocock and Marya Sea Kaminski. From a practical perspective, of course, the abrupt change aids in depicting Potato’s transition into gay life in America simply by introducing a significantly older actor who can appropriately appear in the scenes when things inevitably start to get sexy; but on a deeper level, this calculated recasting invites contemplation on the relationship between our environment and our identity, highlighting the filmmaker’s seeming assertion that changing the world you live in requires you to become a different person – or perhaps, in light of the film’s opening quote (“I’ve always been America in my heart,” from queer trailblazer Quentin Crisp), that becoming the person you are meant to be requires finding a world where it is possible to do so, even if you have to build it yourself.

Still, even if Hurley’s ambitious conceits bring a kind of aspirational magic realism to his film, they never become pretentious, nor do they derail for an instant the movie’s sense of fun. In this, the filmmaker is greatly aided by his talented cast, peppered with familiar faces like DeLaria, Lauria, and Bennett (all of whom do exceptional character work while giving a sly and ironic nod to their own familiar persona), but dominated by the masterful performances from the four actors playing his two leads. Both Barbieri and Kaminski are exceptional as Lena, making her the unorthodox and empowering heroine she deserves to be; as the two incarnations of Potato, both Powers and Bocock bring powerful charisma to the role – but the younger Powers deserves special kudos for a thoroughly mature and self-aware performance worthy of an actor twice his age or older.

“Potato Dreams of America” made a big splash at last year’s SXSW, as well as at Los Angeles’ Outfest, where it won Hurley the festival’s Grand Jury award for Best Screenplay because of its “unique non-traditional portrayal of a gay immigrant’s transition to America and his relationship to his mother.” It’s this quality that makes it a must-watch experience. As Hurley says in his official director’s statement for the film: “Despite the heavy subject matter, the story of my mom and I coming to America is not only very funny but also very inspiring, with an ending that will have to be seen to be believed. I believe this story of unconditional love, human resilience and the power of hope is what the world needs right now.”

After watching his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story and thoroughly enjoying it, we can safely assure you that he’s not wrong.

“Potato Dreams of America” opens for a limited theatrical run on Jan. 14. It releases on VOD platforms Feb. 22.

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