On the most literal level, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s elliptical, spiritual-cum-sensual movie Teorema (1968) is about an entire family being driven to distraction by their mutual desire to have sex with Terence Stamp. Viewed from this angle, it is realistic enough that it might be reclassified as a documentary – theirs is, after all, an understandable insanity, shared by many moviegoers in the sixties and beyond. Only 923 words end up being spoken over Teorema’s 90-minute running time, and because Terence Stamp does not, as it turns out, actually speak Italian, the 25 or so allotted to his character are dubbed. That Pasolini cast him anyway is testament to both his wattage as an actor, and to Pasolini’s innate understanding of lust as a thing that is removed from language, totally unbound by reason, and as sudden and inexplicable as a miracle. What Stamp possesses is an air of glamour, in the most traditional and most supernatural sense – ‘a sort of spell,’ the writer Autumn Whitefield-Madrado wrote in 2015, citing the old Scottish word glamer as its root, ‘that would affect the eyesight of those afflicted, so that objects appear different than they actually are.’
The family in Teorema are both rich and unfulfilled, their lives luxurious but stultifying and empty, until one day they receive a mysterious telegram informing them that someone called ‘The Visitor’ will arrive shortly. When he does, because he looks the way he does – those bright teal eyes and that absurd, almost feminine cupid’s bow, the whole face somehow simultaneously innocent and evil – it is as if some obvious force of nature, like a hurricane or a Biblical flood, has burst into their bourgeois home and swept away their inhibitions. Who are they to deny beauty in all of its terrible strength, its divine power? Who could possibly resist what has been carefully designed, either by nature or by God, to be entirely irresistible? The first to fall prey to his eerie magnetism is the maid, who is so moved and so unsettled that she cries just looking at him and then rushes to the gas hose in the kitchen, to attempt to end her life; next is the son, who is so overcome with longing that he behaves as if he has been possessed, lifting the sheets of his guest’s bed while he is sleeping in order to get a glimpse of his bewitching nakedness, and then immediately sobbing an apology and fleeing. Off-screen, all of them eventually sleep with the mysterious Visitor, who makes up for his relative silence by bestowing on them, one by one, a look of such intense, beatific interest and attraction that the need for words at all becomes irrelevant. Once he has completed his campaign of quiet seduction, he announces his intention to depart, tipping the film into a second act that shows the family, as individuals and as a larger unit, breaking down.
Everyone is in agreement that the act of fucking Terence Stamp is utterly transformative, and that having the opportunity to continue to fuck him taken from them is enough to ensure madness: the mother, the father and the son all use the word ‘destroyed’ to describe the effect The Visitor’s sudden departure has on their composure, to say nothing of their lives. After he leaves, the mother begins having casual sexual encounters with young men, the daughter becomes catatonic, the maid returns to the village she grew up in and attains what is best described as a state of sainthood, finding herself able to perform genuine miracles, the son becomes an abstract artist, and the father gives his factory to its workers and then runs, naked and screaming, out into the wilderness. That the maid, who eventually allows herself to be buried alive in order to achieve rebirth, is the only member of the family who appears happy in the face of such terrible change, is telling – it is easier, after all, for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than it is for a wealthy man to enter heaven. The Greek root of Teorema, ‘theorema’, can be taken to mean ‘theorem’, but it also means ‘spectacle’ and ‘intuition’, both of which seem to me to be necessary building blocks in the construction of desire. When Stamp’s character appears for the first time, seen at a distance at a party at the mansion, the film slips from sepia into full colour, in exactly the way life does when a particularly alluring person ambles into view. ‘Who is that boy?’ a guest enquires, and the daughter of the family simply says ‘a boy’, the understatement hanging there like Christ hangs in an image of the crucifixion. Is The Visitor an angel, or the devil, or is he in fact – as most interpretations have it – Christ himself? When Teorema was released the Catholic church, which briefly blocked the film from exhibition for ‘degeneracy’, certainly felt that Pasolini had intended him to be the latter, and in doing so had presented a Christ who was not simply sexual, but coolly, casually pansexual – not simply pansexual, either, but a pansexual Marxist.
‘You don’t think God is sexy?’ the late genius Prince once purred to a reporter at The Globe and Mail. ‘When you have faith, serotonin starts pumping in your brain. It’s the same as when you have an orgasm.’ It seems obvious that if Prince, at the height of his sexual powers, happened to descend on the Milanese mansion of a wealthy Italian family, they would all at least attempt to fuck him. It seems obvious, too, that Prince is right when he equates arousal and religious faith – the way both things bring about rapture, cloud our judgement, and transform us briefly into different people. I thought about Prince’s serotonin theory on watching Benedetta (2021), another film in which God (or rather, Christ) is sexy. Based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986) by Judith C. Brown, it tells the story of a nun who may or not be communicating one-on-one with Jesus, and who may or may not believe her own hype, and who is definitely, unequivocally having sex with her young novice, a wild-eyed and feral woman called Bartolomea. Because Benedetta is a film by Paul Verhoeven, and because it was once advertised with an ingenious poster that riffed subtly on the one for the director’s freaky sexual masterwork, 1995’s Showgirls, audiences might have expected nunsploitation. What is most interesting about Benedetta, however, is the fact that, just as Pasolini did in Teorema, Verhoeven treats sensuality and religion not as two active and reactive ingredients in a Molotov cocktail of provocation, but as two compatible, complimentary halves of an ecstatic whole. A member of The Jesus Seminar and an expert in the historical Christ, Verhoeven may not be religious, but he affords faith itself the kind of reverence that brings Benedetta’s tone closer to Teorema’s than that of, say, Ken Russell’s X-rated haute-nunsploitation film The Devils (1971).
Benedetta never once suggests definitively that the woman at its centre is mistaken in her belief that she is communicating with a higher power, even if it does not explicitly prove her correct, either. The film’s ambiguity is its greatest strength, allowing it to unfurl initially as three movies simultaneously: one about a righteous Christian prophet with a direct hotline to a horny Christ, one about a delusional woman with a Joan of Arc complex, and one about an intensely charismatic charlatan familiar enough with scripture to convince the church – however fleetingly – that she might be on the path to attaining sainthood. When we first meet Benedetta, she is a precocious child atop a horse, travelling with her parents to a nunnery where she will be installed, for a considerable sum of money, as a future bride of Christ. Bandits try to rob her parents, and she calls upon a bird to defecate directly in one of the brigands’ open eyes; at the convent, a large stone rendering of the Virgin Mary falls on top of her for no apparent reason, and serenely, as if this were the logical course of action for a child trapped underneath a statue, little Benedetta suckles at its breast. Later, as an adult woman, she begins to experience hallucinations about Christ: in the first, she is beset by phallic snakes, the serpents coiling suggestively up her body until Jesus, muscular and handsome and carrying an impressively large sword, slices through them valiantly as if he were not the son of God at all, but a prince in a fairytale. She develops the stigmata, although some question remains as to whether or not she inflicted the injuries on herself, and she begins to speak in a deep, terrifying voice – one that Verhoeven has modulated just enough that it does not seem to be possible or natural.
What is or is not ‘natural’ is a question of some import in Verhoeven’s movie, with the underlying implication being that for those with faith, ‘natural’ is a synonym for something having been ordained or made by God. Benedetta’s sexuality may be circumstantial – she is, after all, a nun, and thus only really proximate to other women, making the only possibility for sexual self-expression an innately queer one – but I do not personally believe this is the case, since though she does have sexual fantasises about Christ, one of her visions makes it clear that she is not imagining that He is risen, risen indeed: when she either dreams or hallucinates Him being crucified, He reveals a vulva underneath his loincloth. ‘Do you love me?’ Christ asks Benedetta, adding: ‘Wherever I am, there can be no shame.’ Whether Benedetta is speaking to Christ or speaking to her own subconscious, the message being delivered is the same: that her desires, which are not the desires the church believes that she should have, are not only legitimate, but entirely right, as in harmony with God as any other kind of love. Rather than offensive, Verhoeven’s depiction of Christ with female genitals is serious and unlurid, making it a more radical image than if it had been designed purely for provocation. (More radical still would be to read the Christ of Benedetta’s visions as a trans man, although I don’t think that we are meant to.) ‘Flights of Christian religious experience and bursts of erotic impulses,’ Georges Bataille once wrote, ‘[are] part and parcel of the same movement.’ When the movie’s sex scenes finally arrive, they are certainly designed to turn us on, but the level they are pitched at is, if anything, less feverish and hysterical than that of the scenes in which Benedetta appears to rise up from the dead, or bellows Blasphemy! Blasphemy! at her fellow sisters in that sonorous and masculine voice.
‘Just because you put Jesus Christ into a Hollywood melodrama,’ the writer and director Paul Schrader once suggested, ‘doesn’t mean that it’s a spiritual film.’ Benedetta, I would argue, is a spiritual film, if not a Catholic one like Teorema. Verhoeven, showing Sister Benedetta doggedly insisting on her faith through both rapturous highs and agonising lows, under pressure from the patriarchal strictures of the church and ostracised by her female superiors, seems to view the actual experience of religious ecstasy in a way that recalls the old truism about sex and pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good. By the last scene, Benedetta has escaped being burned alive, and is lying in a barn somewhere outside the plague-wracked city with her lover Bartolomea – that she decides to turn back, risking execution, would appear to nix the possibility that Benedetta is essentially a conwoman, a chancer using scripture for her own personal gain, and instead prove that she either does have Christ’s ear, or that she is truly mad. Either way, her passion cannot be denied. If love is strange, and God moves in mysterious ways, then it is easy to imagine that a love affair with God would be the most deranging love affair of all. Her walk back to the city is not really all that different from the madcap run the screaming father makes into the desert, naked, at the end of Teorema: a self-immolatory gesture that positions martyrdom as the ultimate form of sensuality, the ultimate proof of love.
When Paul Schrader said that putting Christ into a film did not necessarily mean the film was spiritual, he was promoting First Reformed, his 2017 film about a reverend who is driven to a crisis by a sudden awareness of the degree to which human beings are destroying the planet. Reverend Toller, who is played with a delicate hangdog quality by an unusually un-telegenic Ethan Hawke, lost a son in the Iraq war, and has long felt guilty for the fact that he encouraged him to enlist in the first place; every night, he writes an entry in his journal, aiming to record ‘the simple events of the day, factually and without hiding anything.’ ‘When writing about oneself,’ he notes, ‘one should show no mercy. Who are you hiding from? God?’ Certainly, Reverend Toller is not particularly merciful in his assessment of himself: ‘I read these words,’ he writes a little later, after wondering whether ‘Jesus worried about being liked,’ ‘and see not truth, but pride.’ When a young veteran’s wife approaches him after a sermon in his church looking for counselling for her husband, he appears to see an opportunity for absolution, maybe reasoning that saving the life of a man of the same age and with the same vocation as his deceased son might help to cancel out his sins. The wife, who is beautiful and pregnant, is named Mary, and she radiates a superhuman sweetness and a kind of spiritual lightness, although if these qualities make Toller think about a character who features prominently in a certain book, he does not show it. Her husband wants her to abort the baby, reasoning that global warming will soon render the world uninhabitable for new life. When the two men meet, in spite of Toller’s best efforts it is Michael, the desperate environmentalist veteran, who ends up making a convert: ‘The bad times will begin,’ Michael tells him ominously, the abstraction of ‘bad times’ sounding a little Biblical in and of itself, ‘and from that point everything moves very quickly.’ Toller, already an alcoholic and a sick man who is wracked with psychic and physical pain, looks more pained still as the younger man rants about flooding and pandemics, climate refugees and irreversible global warming and starvation.
‘Can God forgive us?’ Michael asks him, suddenly. ‘For what we’ve done to this world?’ The question, as if it were a hypnotic trigger, flips a switch in Toller, nudging him out of control. When Mary finds a bomb vest Michael has been tinkering with in the garage, he hides it in the parsonage for safekeeping; later, meeting Michael in the forest, Toller comes upon his body, his head blown off in a shotgun suicide, and the violence and despair that have been fluttering at the edges of the picture become central to the movie. When the Reverend rearranges the church signboard to read WILL GOD FORGIVE US?, it is interesting that he nixes Michael’s ‘can’, with its implied ‘cannot’, for ‘will’ – a subtle shift that appears to acknowledge that God, in His omnipotence, can do anything he likes. Anton Chekov once wrote that although man can be forgetful, God remembers everything; Toller, who remembers just enough to suffer, drinks an unusual blend of scotch and Pepto-Bismol every night while he is writing, softening the edges of his grief. Ostensibly meant to offset the damage that alcoholism has been doing to his stomach, the drink’s self-negating qualities are, in a way, a minor mirror for the psychological skirmish playing out in Toller’s mind: the panacea of faith co-mingling with the poisonous burn of human suffering, dulling but not cancelling out the pain. ‘Despair,’ he writes in his diary just after first meeting with Michael, ‘is a development of pride so great that it chooses one certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.’ Still, hasn’t Toller himself admitted to being too proud a little earlier on in the journal? And what good is a self-effacing man in the face of a dying planet, anyway?
I revisited First Reformed for the first time in several years in 2021, a little after seeing Teorema and before seeing Benedetta – I had been ill myself for some time, and the day after I watched Teorema I learned that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and it seemed to me to be an appropriate time to finally re-watch a film I had on first release, for reasons that remain mysterious even to myself, found almost unbearable to endure in its emotional intensity. In truth, I cannot be entirely certain that ‘unbearable to endure’ is the right phrase, since the thing that tripped me up about it was not that I found it inadequate or imperfect, but that I found it so full of something that resembled God-force that it felt like an extremely personal challenge to my own agnosticism. How to explain something entirely inexplicable? Schrader is, there is no doubt, a lifelong provocateur; it is unusual, though, for a film’s provocativeness to lie in its full-throated, unembarrassed embrace of God, making First Reformed challenging in a very different way from the specific brand of film that might more typically be described as ‘transgressive’. Schrader’s central question, just like Toller’s question, is not whether or not God exists, but whether or not even He is merciful enough to take us as we are. Raised in a religious family that instilled in him a classic fire-and-brimstone sense of Calvinist drama, Schrader has spent decades transposing those same blunt shades of light and dark into his work, the impossibility of moral spotlessness becoming a fixation. ‘We believed in a very real hell, and very real evil,’ he has said about his early life. ‘My mother took my hand once and stabbed me with a needle. She said: “You know how that felt, when the needle hit your thumb? Well, hell is like that all the time.”’
Here is where the through-line between Teorema, First Reformed and Benedetta unequivocally becomes apparent for the first time: one evening, Mary arrives at the rectory late at night, afraid and obviously suffering from depression. Plagued by bleak thoughts and insomnia, she tells Reverend Toller shyly about an intimate act she used to perform with her husband, not sexual but not totally unsensual, either. ‘We would do this thing called The Magical Mystery Tour,’ she says, hesitantly. ‘It sounds silly, but we would share a joint and lie on top of each other with our clothes on, and we would try to get as much contact as possible. We would have our arms out, and we would look straight into each other’s eyes, and then we would breathe in rhythm.’ She demurs at first when Toller asks if she has come to see his because she is hoping he’ll enact the ritual in Michael’s place, but it does not take long for her to change her tune. ‘I mean, yeah,’ she admits, visibly embarrassed. ‘I guess I did.’ Carefully, a little awkwardly, Toller lies down, and the extremely pregnant Mary stretches out along his body, their hands thrown out at their sides in such a way as to recall Christ on the cross. Suddenly, they both appear to levitate, the sparse room in the rectory fading into black, then fading back in as a sky studded with stars; a snow-capped mountain range; a rainforest; an ocean; a colossal traffic jam; an endless mass of rubber tyres; factories belching smoke; an oil spill. ‘The story had to transcend the material world,’ Schrader has said in reference to this scene, ‘and touch the world of the spirit. It’s a world that’s running alongside of us, that we feel we can almost reach over and touch…we had to remind the viewer that this world exists, that there’s a spiritual reality right underneath us, or right next to us.’ In Schrader’s mind, it is Mary who provides their astral-projection-cum-shared-hallucination with its reverence for the beauty of the natural world, and Toller who allows his psychic darkness to bleed into it and turn it into something nihilistic, two visions of planet earth that make it look convincingly like heaven and like hell.
The second time First Reformed ascends to this astonishing level of transcendence is in its very last scene, after Toller, initially planning his own act of ecoterrorism, is denied the opportunity for vengeance at the eleventh hour. His plan is simple, brutal, and set into motion by a possible diagnosis of terminal cancer: at a 250-year anniversary celebration for the church, he will wear and detonate a suicide vest Michael made before he died, killing several corrupt local politicians and the unrepentant owner of a factory that pumps out dangerous pollution. Just as Toller is readying himself to lead the service, he sees Mary – sweet, bright Mary, with her belly swollen outwards like a sail – walking into First Reformed, and he realises that there is no way to hit back at the industrialists and capitalists without also murdering the most innocent bystander of all. Taking off the vest, he wraps his body in barbed wire. Now, there is no drinking to forget, and there is no softening panacea either. He replaces his usual whisky-Pepto cocktail with a glass of chemical drain cleaner, thick and viscous and entirely lethal, and just as he lifts it to his lips, he feels a sudden presence in the room. ‘Ernst,’ says Mary, simply, standing in the doorway. Either this is the first time she has referred to him as something other than ‘Reverend Toller’, or it is the first time that her doing so has felt so intimate; either way, a shift occurs, a swell of hope. She runs towards him and they kiss, the camera swirling manically around them, their connection not necessarily romantic or erotic but spiritual, soaring, and the first time I watched First Reformed I remember suddenly being aware that tears were pouring down my cheeks – that although what I was seeing could on its most basic level be described as two attractive people kissing, what it felt like was an image of redemption. Silly, really, to think Schrader would be simpleminded enough to have his beautiful pregnant Mary standing in for the most famous Mary of all, when he could pull the rug from underneath us at the last minute and have her be actual fucking God, instead. ‘God comes over to him,’ as the director himself said on a podcast, ‘and says, “Reverend Toller, you wanna know what Heaven looks like? Here it it is. This is exactly what it looks like: It looks like one long kiss.”’
In the New Yorker, Richard Brody called the film ‘[a] repudiation of many of the temporal forms of church life in favor of its rarefied spiritual mission,’ adding that in its best moments, it is characterised by ‘an ecstatic, arc-bright [blend of] wonder and terror.’ I would argue that this same description might fit Teorema and, to some extent, Benedetta too: all three movies deal in ecstasy, in wonder and in terror, criticising the dogmatic organisation of the church but elevating the profound experiences of pleasure, love, compassion, spirituality and eroticism. The truth is that I stopped working on this essay at this point some time around the spring of 2022, sensing that whatever I was running up against when I attempted to explain my interest in these films was more than I could cope with at that time. Do note: this was before Catholicism became newly fashionable, and at any rate I would not say that what I had been struggling with was the idea that I might have faith, or that God might be real – rather, it was the idea that I could never adequately rationalise the intensity of my reaction to these films as someone who was not religious. ‘I knew it was art,’ the unbeatable critic and novelist Patricia Lockwood writes in Priestdaddy (2017), a memoir with a self-explanatory title, on the subject of watching her sister sing, ‘because it drew the senses slightly out of my body, and they leaped to meet the art in the middle of the air.’ This, I thought, reading Priestdaddy in the jittery hiatus between beginning this text and actually finishing it, this exactly: I could say that Teorema or First Reformed or Benedetta had performed the same trick of coaxing my senses from my body and suspending them, momentarily, in the air, giving the illusion of a quasi-religious experience when really, I might have been having a pure, animal response to art. ‘If you sneer at religion as the opiate of the masses,’ Lockwood observes elsewhere in the book, ‘you must sneer also at the brain, because the receptors are there. You must sneer at the body, which knows how to feel that bliss.’
And what else is an opiate of the masses, preying on our receptors and coaxing our bodies into feeling bliss that might resemble spiritual fervour? Love, of course, or sex, looping back to all three films’ depiction of God’s grace as something bestowed on His most devoted followers through kissing, or through fucking, or through mutual, full-body-contact levitation. Suppose we stripped First Reformed, Teorema and Benedetta of any real Godliness or spirituality whatsoever, and we took their events as being either literal and straightforward, or abstractly allegorical: in each instance, the film would become about the redemptive and transformative quality of direct contact with one’s innermost desires, with a loved one, with the kind of empathy that might convince us to fight climate change. In First Reformed, Reverend Toller organises a memorial service for Michael, who has specified that he would like his ashes distributed at a toxic waste dump, and that he would like a choir to sing Neil Young’s ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up?’, a song about facing up to ‘the big machine’ in order to ‘save the earth.’ Toller has the youth choir from First Reformed perform it, and Schrader means us to contrast the performance with a scene in which they sing a crystalline and gorgeous version of the hymn ‘Washed in the Blood’. Both songs’ lyrics are more or less lists of questions, posed in order to convince the listener to devote themselves to something greater, and the presence of the Young track does two things: it turns the central query of ‘Washed’ (‘Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?’) into a metaphor about having blood on one’s hands, and makes a case for the Canadian singer-songwriter’s environmentalist anthem being a hymn or prayer itself. Love, in both cases, is the subject, whether that love is of Christ, or of the planet and one’s fellow man, and both scenes are moving, and ethereal in their own way. When Verhoeven said that putting Christ into a Hollywood melodrama did not necessarily make it a spiritual film, he might also have said that the obverse could be true: that God-force, as a sensation, might just as easily be invoked by something that had nothing to do with Christ or with God at all. Perhaps it is not my agnosticism being challenged by films like Teorema or Benedetta or First Reformed, but my cynicism, my resistance to earnestness and intensity of feeling. Perhaps it is enough to find myself moved by the story of a young man who teaches a wealthy family above desire and love, and then about how that love might be translated into Marxism; by the story of a woman coming to accept her queerness as a thing that makes her powerful and not sinful, her love of another woman co-mingling with a new love of herself; the story of a man of faith, lifted by a kiss, shaken out of his complacency and doubt about the goodness of humanity by an earthly, true connection with another human being, turning his back on the oil-slick darkness to let light come streaming in.