It is not every day that an academic history book inspires a film by one of the world’s leading directors, especially when its author is our former Wesleyan History Department colleague & former provost, Judith Brown!
During the last week of our classes, in early December, Wesleyan University hosted a series of events that celebrated the U.S. theaterical release of a new film, Benedetta (2021), directed by Paul Verhoeven, inspired by a story unearthed by Judith during her dissertation research. and later published book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986).
The book tells the story of Benedetta Carlini (1590-1661), an abbess in Tuscany, who was imprisoned for claiming false visions and for allegedly having sexual relations with one of her nuns, Sister Bartolomea.
At left is a photograph of film director Paul Verhoeven showing Judith’s book to the press after the film, reviewed here by Justin Chang for the LA Times, was shown at Cannes Film Festival, June 1, 2021.
Our events began with two screenings of Benedetta at our local Metro Movies in Middletown, CT. General manager, Brian Rasor (shown in the photograph below, with Judith, before a screening), went the extra mile to obtain the film that allowed us to discuss the film with Judith during her visit – and for her to see the entire film on the big screen for the first time.
The following day, we were honored to be joined by the film’s director Paul Verhoeven, for a 45 minute lunchtime live Zoom conversation about the film and collaboration with Judith Brown. Verhoeven is one of the leading film directors, and is known both for Hollywood films such as RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992), as well as European art house releases such as Elle (2016).
A recording of our discussion with director Verhoeven on December 6, 2021 is available on the History Department website at the link (here), which viewers are free to watch and share. We had a wide-ranging conversation that touched on many themes, including some of the challenges of trying to represent on screen Benedetta’s religious visions, prophecies, and her sexuality. He drew, among other sources, on medieval paintings and texts, such as the texts and art works of another early abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).
(I loved the part where the director talked about filmmakers needing to mine books they’re adapting for footnotes; though concede mine was perhaps a minority interest.)
The week wrapped up with a panel discussion with Brown who joined us in person from California for the occasion. The panel, which was moderated by Prof. Ellen Nerenberg (Romance Languages and Literatures) and Prof. Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Religion and Science in Society), covered a wide range of topics. Brown emphasized that the ambiguity in the original text is one of its appeals, and illuminated points of difference, and affinity, between the book and the film. Panel hosts, Prof. Rubenstein and Prof. Nerenberg, considered the absence in the film of Benedetta’s visions of the angel Splenditello, in whose guise Benedetta could see herself as having sexual relations with another woman, and audience members reflected on how this points to a more complex conception of gender and sexuality in early modern Europe than the term “lesbian” nun suggests.
Wesleyan Connection reported on the events in a story by Olivia Drake with photographs on January 24, 2022, which you can find here.
Thanks to all of the multiple departments, programs, and assistants whose support made these three events possible, including the History Department, the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, the Science in Society Program, the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Center for Humanities, Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, and the Office of Academic Affairs.
A special thanks to Nicole Potestivo for helping us set up our conversation on Zoom.
Thanks especially to Judith Brown and Paul Verhoeven for reminding us that there is more to the relationship between historians and filmmakers than we might at first imagine!