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for Virginie Efira, “playing a virgin at over 40 is pretty weird”

If the career on the big screen of Virginie Efira has everything of a rise in power, from the first popular comedies which surfed on her notoriety to a remarkable breakthrough in author cinema, in particular alongside Justine Triet (Victoria in 2016, Sibyl in 2019), it’s a safe bet that Benedetta, the latest feature film by maverick Paul Verhoeven, opens up unheard-of perspectives for him.

Nothing seems impossible after such a role, that of a young nun of the XVIIe century which rises to the head of its convent in Tuscany by “doing” miracles and, above all, by the conquest of its sexual freedom, acceding to a pleasure which reinforces its mystical transports. Enough to shatter the silky and clean image of the actress who, taking risks with an imperturbable demeanor, joins here the formidable line of the heroines of Verhoeven: strong women who know how to navigate skillfully in the social game, like Nomi the stripper Showgirls (1995) or Rachel Stein, the resistant in love with Black Book (2006).

Read the review of “Victoria” (in September 2016): The grandeur and loneliness of the modern woman

The actress with Hitchcockian blond hair and a chubby face, born in Schaerbeek in the Brussels region, receives, dashing and all smiles, in her Parisian living room decorated according to her like a fortune teller’s cabinet ”, with strong curtains and tapestries. She remembers the moment when she discovered this disheveled scenario, inspired by the real case of the lesbian nun Benedetta Carlini as recounted by the American historian Judith C. Brown in her book Sister Benedetta, between saint and lesbian (Gallimard, 2007).

While reading, she recalls, I was frequently obliged to stop, so rich was the text, not only of metaphors but also of concrete notations. I liked all these layers which opened up new cinema territories for me and also revealed things about myself. In each scene, there were threads to draw on the suffering, the relationship to the body, the faith, the symbolism, but which never prevent a narrative lyricism.

“Spiritualized eroticism”

Benedetta sees visions, prays and preaches Savonarola style, discovers stigmata for herself and exposes them to the eyes of others. In the evening, she seeks pleasure by diverting certain liturgical objects from their use. How do you prepare for such a crazy role?

In the book, the emphasis is on the pathological, schizophrenic aspect of the character, but that was less interesting for me. I had some ideas for interpretation, for example a prayer that I imagined as a phone call. Verhoeven received my proposals with his own mischievous laconism: “it’s weird but it’s good, I think” ”, she imitates, suddenly taking on the Flemish accent. “ It is not a director of actors who psychologizes, he is above all interested in the image he is building.

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