Watching ‘Benedetta’ is like a nun’s confession of life in the convent

‘Benedetta’ is not an easy watch.

It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Or is it?

In a world rife with political scandals, Mafia violence, sexual assaults and abortion/conflict-prevention/education debates, the real scandal might be nunsense.

The film “Benedetta” (“My Sister”) is written and directed by some man named “Alexandra” (the film is actually an adaptation of a novel of the same name) and it stars my girlfriend (Oscar-nominated actor Vincent Cassel of “Black Swan” fame, clad in one of the most fetching short-shorts of all time). That’s an easy addition to the already grand cast list, and yet somehow the film never stands out, instead resonating with plot lines we already know to be true.

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It’s more or less a lesson on surviving: Small talk, just getting people talking, another person’s outfit — an interplay we all can relate to. I’m sorry for calling it nunish, but they’re on to something here — just wait until the ending, which might take you a few scenes to warm up to.

Olivia de Havilland and David Hogg star in “Benedetta.” (Photo: She-Ra Productions)

Things begin in a beautiful, but lonely, provincial convent home near Milan, Italy, where a shy young woman named Benedetta (the luminous Olivia de Havilland in a titanic performance) has just moved to help her overbearing religious sister (the also radiant de Havilland) and her two friends. Like many growing up in a convent, Benedetta feels suffocated, displaced and left out of Italian life, but she’s also worried that maybe she’s just going to grow out of her shell and out of her convent. Then de Havilland walked into the scene.

Although “Benedetta” is shot on a very modest budget (Giorgio Diritti is only credited as production designer and lighting designer), that’s apparent as soon as you see the maid (Juno Temple) cleaning the staircase in sharpened heels and a baby-doll dress. Every shot, from simple beige draperies to abstract tableaux, is saturated in color and luxurious, not a splatter of gray or black in sight. While the story is about many things — fitting in and finding a husband in an abusive family, loving the land, losing loved ones to illness and violence, bearing an unwanted child — the film’s music, as well as the unruly, energetic choreography with which Cassel shows us the nuns’ rituals, quickly leavens the heavy atmosphere, bringing a welcome burst of hope and energy.

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Yet “Benedetta” really belongs to de Havilland and her own exquisitely nuanced performance, which could have been a retread of so many good parts played by veteran actresses who absolutely deserved it: Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marisa Tomei. Here’s hoping that one day de Havilland, in all of her good roles, will dig deep into a juicy nun role.

“Benedetta” — 3 stars

PG-13 for smoking and brief language. In Italian with English subtitles. 129 minutes.

Also playing: Palais des Festivals.

Christopher Hawthorne is a freelance writer in New York.

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