Why doesn’t anyone have the decency to protest anymore?
Despite all his virtues, Father Ted has a lot to answer for. Heaven spare us the people who feel smart for mentioning ‘pretty girls’ during the Rose of Tralee beauty pageant or yelling ‘Down with that stuff’ whenever protesters object to sexy nun movies. Get a new joke.
Something didn’t happen last week that suggests the latest of these gags – splendid in their original context – could, to paraphrase your mother breaking the news of a flattened pet in a truck, be put retired on a beautiful farm in the countryside. What if you released a sexy nun movie (literally) on Good Friday and no one showed up to protest?
Paul Verhoeven has offended the bourgeoisie for half a century. “I caused a little scandal in Tralee when I presented a debut film by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Turkish Delight, in the program of the local film society,” wrote my late colleague Michael Dwyer of a film from 1973. Basic Instinct featured that notorious leg cross. His eyeing Showgirls always generate sighs. As recently as 2016, Oscar-nominated Elle had many critics worried with its protagonist’s arguably jaded response to her own rape. But Benedetta is an old-school provocation.
Based on Judith C Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film details, with predictable clarity, the affair between Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century mystic, and a young novice. There’s blood, defecation, genital torture and, more provocatively, a degree of, uh, insertion. Once the streets of Tralee would have groaned with outraged worshippers.
The decision to commercially release here on Good Friday promised a provocation
In truth, no one expects such protests anymore. The Irish Film Classification Office (formerly Irish Film Censor’s Office) moved away from banning films at the turn of the century. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs Featuring Unsimulated Sex received a certificate in 2004 and hardly anyone outside of the movie community noticed. Mainstream films have since become less sexually explicit, and as the country embraces secularism, the number of Christians motivated to protest against specialized art films is inexorably trending towards zero.
Still, it felt like Benedetta could provide one last chance to dust off the megaphone, placard and felt pen. The film was announced five years ago with a story on the cover of a trade publication featuring a nipple sticking out of a nun’s habit. Verhoeven spoke about it. The decision to release commercially here on Good Friday promised a provocation.
During the American premiere of Benedetta at the New York Film Festival, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property held a protest. “I walked past this group of about 20 protesters on my way to my 3:00 p.m. screening at Alice Tully Hall,” tweeted IndieWire executive editor Christian Blauvelt. “They repeatedly say Hail Mary through megaphones. Good publicity for the film! Further US protests followed.
The good folks at RTÉ’s Liveline, always a popular hotbed of fulmination, seemed to think they were onto something. An introductory conversation danced timidly around the scene in which the lovers use a carved statuette of the Virgin Mary as a sexual aid. As has long been the custom in such cases, the protesting caller, a level-headed man named John O’Donovan, had not seen the film, but it is, to be fair, hard to imagine. do not object to the finished article.
“There was a time in this country where there would be protests outside the cinema and a lot of cinemas wouldn’t show it,” Mr O’Donovan said. No one came to shout its Irish premiere at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. A call confirms that no one protested outside the Irish Film Institute when it was commercially released. An unfortunate chapter in Irish history seems to have been relegated to dust.
The ‘woke Nazis’ beloved by right-wing fulminators aren’t coming to tear moviegoers out of their seats
It’s suspected that not everyone linked to Benedetta will be celebrating. As Christian Blauvelt notes, such publicity would have done no harm to a film that stands at odds with the general public. Yet protest is not entirely a thing of the past.
When this column last reported on signs outside cinemas, we were concerned about organizations such as Galway Pro-Choice opposing the screening of an anti-abortion film called Unplanned. There have been no calls for the film to be banned. But more than a few Father Ted fans cracked the old jokes when photographs emerged of picketers braving the October winds at the Omniplex. If they hadn’t been there, the film certainly wouldn’t have been mentioned in The Irish Times.
You don’t have to get carried away. The “woke Nazis” so beloved by right-wing fulminators do not come to tear moviegoers from their seats. But, in this country at least, leftist protesters currently seem more easily provoked than their fundamentalist Christian counterparts.
Next time, Mr. Verhoeven should try his hand at… Well, let’s not do the work for him. He has been bothering people for longer than many of you have been alive.