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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: The underwhelming nuns of 'Benedetta'—and a Coppola...

Screen Grabs: The underwhelming nuns of ‘Benedetta’—and a Coppola fest!

Critic Dennis Harvey runs down the releases to ease you into the holidays, from a run of Coppola's SF productions to a spate of uneven blockbusters.

For a while now, the annual movie calendar has resembled being the parent of an adolescent: Months go by when you’re dealing with a child, then suddenly there’s a growth spurt and it looks/wants to be treated like an adult. Mainstream films for grownups (i.e., not involving superheroes, dinosaurs, etc.) are usually cluttered towards the end of the year, in large part because they have more need of critical praise and awards to succeed commercially, and things like top 10 lists and Oscars rely considerably on what’s fresh in the voters’ minds. Sure, a Best Picture winner could conceivably be released in February but most likely it will have been semi-forgotten 10 months later.

A man who made more than his fair share of films major in both prestige and commercial weight, including several high-profile December releases (The Godfather II & III, The Cotton Club), is the subject of a BAMPFA retrospective starting this Fri/3. Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope highlights the contributions of the SF-based production company he founded as an alternative to the constraints of the major studio systems down south. This series, like Zoetrope itself, starts with the low-budget 1969 road trip drama The Rain People. It then encompasses movies the company produced for admired masters (Godard’s Every Man for Himself and Passion, Kurosawa’s Kagemusha), as well as friends and colleagues (Lucas’ American Graffitti, Schrader’s Mishima).

There are also, of course, Coppola’s own, more “personal” directorial projects: Not the Godfathers, but One From the HeartThe ConversationThe Outsiders, and Rumble Fish. There will be his subsequent re-edits of films completed under duress (The Cotton Club EncoreApocalypse Now: Final Cut), plus Hearts of Darkness, the documentary spouse Eleanor Coppola, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper made about the tortured Apocalypse production. And as a nod to the exploitation cinema that gave Coppola his apprenticeship (including two “nudie cuties”) in the early ’60s, there’s the Roger Corman-produced Dementia 13, a little B&W horror potboiler from 1963 that was possibly the best of all the Psycho knockoffs released around that time. For full schedule and program info on the series (which runs through February 27), go here.

While we’ll have to wait a week for some of the bigger year-end US prestige releases (Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, showbiz biopic Being the Ricardos, Adam McKay’s starry satire Don’t Look Up, etc.), this Friday brings some relatively big kahunas from foreign directors. None of them lack for ambition, but in each case the artistic results are decidedly mixed.

Benedetta

Paul Verhoeven has spent much of his career gleefully pushing the envelope, whether in his original Dutch features (Turkish DelightSpettersThe 4th Man), early Hollywood successes (RoboCopTotal RecallBasic Instinct) or later Hollywood excesses (ShowgirlsStarship TroopersHollow Man). Nor has that changed since he returned to making movies in Europe—both Black Book and Elle were deliberately offensive and outrageous. You can make a case for many of these films as subversive, satirical, and so forth. Others can feel like a plain old misanthrope getting his misogynistic rocks off. Verhoeven is now 83 years old, and while it is duly based on historical events (however disputed), his new film feels more like 1970s-style nunsploitation than a serious inquiry into faith, or anything else. I’m not exactly sure what he intended here, but Benedetta isn’t good enough to spend much time pondering it.

One thing few know about this director is that he is, rather shockingly, an amateur Biblical scholar who published a life of Jesus a few years back. (He reportedly still hopes to make a movie of it.) Yet that depth of curiosity towards religious matters doesn’t manifest itself at all in this tale of the titular well-born woman (Virginie Efira) whose family commits her to a nunnery at her behest in 17th-century Tuscany—an era when many aristocratic girls deemed unmarriageable were disposed of thus. There, she clashes with the abbess (Charlotte Rampling) and her daughter (Louise Chevillotte) by claiming sacred visions, miracles, even stigmata; these result in a power struggle, but also in Benedetta acquiring a certain renown as a sort of living saint. However, it all unravels when her lesbian affair with another nun (Daphne Patakia as Bartolomea) is exposed.

The original 1970s celluloid nunsploitation cycle was kicked off by Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils, another fact-derived tale of sexuality and accusation behind convent walls. That movie was luridly hysterical in content and style, yet it took faith seriously; Verhoeven’s sometimes equally outre (if not so stylish) film leaves you having no idea what his perspective is on Benedetta or her actions. He paints some of her “miracles” as credible, yet also has star Efira acting at times like a crass schemer, occasionally speaking in a silly “possessed” voice. The character’s supposed visions (makeout sessions with sexy warrior Jesus, etc.), plus flagellation, torture, suicide, et al. are served up with cheesy sensationalism, while drier matters of theology and sincerity (and/or insanity) get ignored.

Despite good, restrained performances by Rampling and Lambert Wilson (as the Nunzio ultimately charged with investigating Benedetta’s claims), the movie is hard to take seriously—or, conversely, to have much fun with, either. After 131 minutes, I’d hope to know just what Paul Verhoeven is trying to say. But his film is at once unconvincingly over-the-top, and too problematic to be simply enjoyed as good trash. IFC Films is opening the French-language Benedetta in theaters Fri/3, with simultaneous release to digital rental platforms.

The Hand of God

Also toying ambivalently with matters of faith at times is this latest from director Paolo Sorrentino. It starts with a voluptuous supporting character (Luisa Rainieri’s Patrizia) experiencing an apparent miracle, which her jealous husband mistakes for a return to her apparent prior (world’s oldest) profession—starting the movie off with your bedrock Italian Madonna-whore equation. But rather than being meaningfully pursued, this ends up just one more colorful anecdote in a movie that strings a lot of them together and calls it Life.

Sorrentino has invited often comparisons to Fellini; here, it only takes 20 minutes before that late auteur gets name-dropped onscreen. If eight years ago, The Great Beauty was this director’s La Dolce Vita, God is his Amarcord. Much can be said about Fellini, but it cannot be denied that he was an original. Sorrentino can be skillful and ambitious (as well as glib and self-important), but he is an imitator—and somehow even this blatantly autobiographical film seldom seems rooted in anything beyond borrowed ideas, style, and emotions. At one point the teenage protagonist (Filippo Scotti) says, “Reality is lousy. That’s why I want to make films.” But Fellini escaped realism to heighten his inner truth—Sorrentino’s deepest truth seems to be that he simply wants to be Fellini.

Despite a major tragedy (echoing the director’s own formative experience) around its midpoint, The Hand of God stays on the surface. It’s content doles out misanthropic humor, grotesquerie (including a notably “ick” deflowering scene), much yelling amongst blood relatives, a little intrigue, and some boldly trite statements about What Art Is. The director’s muse Toni Servillo is here as the protagonist’s father, doing good work as usual, amongst some other decent performances.

But generally Sorrentino offers caricature in place of character, without the singularity of vision that allowed Fellini to get away with a similar strategy. There’s no real magic or poetry here, though the film’s approximations of those and other qualities will doubtless dupe the gullible. Like many of this director’s works, it’s going to be proclaimed a masterpiece by people who think “This must be a masterpiece—after all, it keeps telling me it is!” The Hand of God isn’t a bad film, but its gestures at profundity are empty enough to quality it as advanced b.s. It opens in limited theaters Fri/3, then begins streaming on Netflix December 15.

Encounter

In contrast to octogenarian Verhoeven and mid-career Sorrentino (he’s 51), Brit director Michael Pearce is a new guy—this is only his second feature. But his first, the Channel Islands-set Beast, was so strikingly assured and compelling that it made him instantly seem a significant talent. The serial-killer theme suggested pulp cliches that the film entirely avoided, arriving at a disturbing tale steeped in complex character psychology. Encounter at first appears to take a similar approach to the familiar sci-fi concept of a stealth alien takeover, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers—a clear inspiration here.

Ex-Marine Malik (Riz Ahmed) is on some kind of secret mission that’s kept him away from his now-ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and two young sons (Lucien-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada) for two years now. But he swoops in to rescue the two boys in the middle of the night when he believes the parasites invading Earth may have infiltrated their home. But as the fugitives drive from the Pacific NW to desert terrain, authorities (including Octavia Spencer as a sympathetic parole officer) are on their trail.

This is, like the Michael Shannon-starring Take Shelter a decade ago, a fantasy-tinged drama that keeps us wondering whether the hero is a lone fighter against encroaching disaster—or just a delusional paranoid whose obsessions place others in danger. It’s an interesting idea, and Ahmed is theoretically just the kind of intense actor to pull it off. But Pearce and co-scenarist Joe Barton fail at the balancing act required. When the narrative begins tilting in a particular direction, it feels less like a startling revelation than a frustrating, clumsy betrayal of what we’d been led to expect—evidence that the movie has been conning us. Ahmed, donning a stereotypical ‘Murrican-shitkicker accent, seems miscast in a role that might’ve been more credibly played by a lesser actor ofordinary macho-action-star stripe.

It’s a well-made film that builds a considerable steam, then just lets it all pfffffft out, to exasperatingly little reward. On the plus side, at least one can say that Pearce’s sophomore slump is definitely out of the way now. Encounter opens in limited theaters Fri/3, then begins streaming on Amazon Prime December 10.

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