Like a fart in church, Verhoeven’s Benedetta is deliriously sacred and profane


Hysterical nuns lead each other into temptation in Benedetta, a true religious drama that only Paul Verhoeven could’ve made. Eliza Janssen sings its praises.

Benedetta

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The most shocking and offensive thing about Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven’s new film may be that it’s not too shocking and offensive at all.

I’m sure any true Christian believers in the audience would disagree with me: one hero prop is a wooden Virgin Mary whittled into the perfect sacrilegious dildo, after all. But considering the toxic romances in other Verhoeven films, from Elle to Black Book all the way back to Basic Instinct’s evil lesbians, the love triangle in riotous religious drama Benedetta can feel downright wholesome. Please take that with a hefty pinch of salt.

Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is married to Christ, but she’s simultaneously messing around with novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) on the side. Both Bartolomea and the film’s OTT depiction of Jesus are introduced amidst a flock of sheep, both are into various forms of penetration, and both have their earthy, mischievous charms. After her cosseted convent upbringing, who can blame Benedetta for getting her spiritual and sexual awakenings mixed up?

It’s undeniable nunsploitation: belonging to the subgenre of lurid thrillers that get their kicks by contrasting chastity and the devil’s most suspiciously male-gaze-driven temptations. The road to hell is, apparently, paved with a lot of boobies and making out, with sapphic desire still the greatest corrupting evil imaginable in such stories.

Efira maintains her character’s fierce piety through it all in a commanding central performance. Whether she’s shitting side by side with her love interest or bellowing threats in the voice of God, we always believe in her.

Or at least, we believe that she believes, as her messiah complex takes on gnarly new symptoms. Some are awfully convenient, such as when her stigmata flares up right after Charlotte Rampling’s abbess expresses doubt. Rampling is all Old Testament as the scowling mother superior: she turns away a desperate newcomer by tutting that “a convent is not a place of charity, child: you must pay to come here.”

She’s the great gatekeeper of this binary, between our material world and faith in the spiritual one beyond—a binary that Benedetta keeps complicating with each toe-curling message she receives from God. Whilst the abbess and the film’s other authoritative characters are sent into hysteria by these contradictions, they’re catnip to Verhoeven, and the 83-year-old provocateur gets off on exhibiting both sides of the divide with raucous style and humour. Flesh and spirit, damnation and salvation, desire and discipline: all are just erotic material, cut from the same scratchy convent cloth.

David Birke’s script, based on the non-fiction account of a 17th century nun’s alleged visions, runs us through a greatest hits of Middle Ages misery. Angry mobs! Self-flagellation! Boils, pustules, and buboes of the Black Plague!

In his interview with Verhoeven, Steve Newall learned that the timely plague/quarantine story of Benedetta was entirely a coincidence, but it certainly adds a hysterical, historical element to a film that’s mostly fixated on its character’s innermost desires. In the year of our lord 2022, after our own devastating plague, the real Benedetta Carlini’s call to “lockdown” the city of Pescia can feel like a true divine act.

Purely for its Italian costume drama setting, Benedetta kept reminding me of Verhoeven’s brutal Flesh + Blood, a film in which a babyfaced Jennifer Jason Leigh turns her experience of being gangraped into a taunting power move.

Nothing in Benedetta made me feel quite so awful, apart from one eye-watering dungeon torture scene: much of the movie operates in the realm of frivolous melodrama, supporting characters giggling and cavorting in the margins. Whenever Jesus shows up it’s a party, with laugh-out-loud CGI action moments to make you remember that this guy directed Total Recall.

In the film’s final act, Benedetta is on trial for sapphism, and one church asshole is in hilarious disbelief: “Lust between women? Impossible!” The corrupt Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) admits that “this convent barely seems bound by what’s possible”, and that could go for all of Benedetta too. Praise be to Paul Verhoeven, barely bound by what’s possible or in good taste: his new movie is a bit of a miracle.

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