'Basic Instinct', 'Starship Troopers' and 'Elle' filmmaker Paul Verhoeven takes on the true tale of a scandalous 17th-century nun in this erotic religious biopic.
February 10, 2022
What do two nuns in the throes of sexual ecstasy gasp? "My god" and "sweet Jesus", of course. No other filmmaker could've made those divine orgasmic exclamations work quite like Paul Verhoeven does in Benedetta, with the Dutch filmmaker adding another lusty, steamy, go-for-broke picture to his resume three decades after Basic Instinct and more than a quarter-century since Showgirls. His latest erotic romp has something that his 90s dives into plentiful on-screen sex didn't, however: a true tale, courtesy of the life of the movie's 17th-century namesake, whose story the writer/director and his co-scribe David Birke (Slender Man) adapt from Judith Brown's 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. For anyone that's ever wondered how a religious biopic and nunsploitation might combine, this is the answer you've been praying for.
Frequently a playful filmmaker — the theories that Showgirls is in on its own joke keep bubbling for a reason — Verhoeven starts his first film since 2016's Elle with that feature's more serious tone. The screen is back, the words "inspired by real events" appear and the score is gloomy. When Benedetta's titular figure appears as a girl (played by Elena Plonka, Don't Worry About the Kids), she's the picture of youth and innocence, and she's also so devoted to her faith that she's overjoyed about joining a convent in the Tuscan village of Pescia. But then villains interrupt her trip, and this pious child demonstrates her favour with the almighty by seemingly getting a bird to shit in a man's eye. It isn't quite as marvellous as turning water into wine, but it's its own kind of miracle. As an adult (Virginie Efira, Bye Bye Morons), she'll talk to strapping hallucinations of Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié, Heroes Don't Die), too, and use her beloved childhood statuette of the Virgin Mary as a dildo.
There is no line between the sacred and the profane in Benedetta: things can be both here, and frequently are. Case in point: on her first night at the convent, after a bartering session between her father (David Clavel, French Dolls) and the abbess (Charlotte Rampling, Dune) over the girl's dowry for becoming a bride of christ, a statue of the Virgin Mary collapses upon Benedetta, and she shows her sanctity by licking the sculpture's exposed breast. So, 18 years later, when she's both seeing Jesus and attracted to abused newcomer Sister Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia, Versailles), they're the most natural things that could happen. To Benedetta, they're gifts from god, too. She does try to deny her chemistry with the convent's fresh novice at first, but the lord wants what he wants for her. Unsurprisingly, not everyone in the convent — the abbess' daughter Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte, Synonyms) chief among them — agrees, approves or in believes in her visions.
Verhoeven puts his own faith in crafting a witty, sexy, no-holds-barred satire. That said, he doesn't ever play Benedetta as a one-note, over-the-top joke that's outrageous for the sake of it. His protagonist believes, he just-as-devoutly believes in her — whether she's a prophet, a heretic or both, he doesn't especially care — and he also trusts her faith in her primal desires. His allegiance is always with Benedetta, but that doesn't mean that he can't find ample humour in the film or firm targets to skewer. The hypocrisy of religion — "a convent is not a place of charity, child; you must pay to come here," the abbess advises — gets his full comic attention. Having the always-great Rampling on-hand to personify the Catholic Church at its most judgemental and least benevolent (at its money-hungry worst, too) helps considerably. Indeed, what the veteran English actor can do with a withering glare and snarky delivery is a movie miracle.
The filmmaker behind RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers' futuristic visions has also long trusted in sex and violence. Here, he trusts that thrusting them together in a story about a lesbian nun who shows signs of the stigmata and scandalises her convent several times over will create his favourite kind of on-screen chaos. He's right, but there's always a smart and scathing point to Benedetta's nudity, fornication and physical altercations, and to how viciously the church responds. Humanity is messy. People are flesh and pulsating urges, no matter who they deify. Those who grasp power by instilling fear and demanding unquestioning allegiance will never put the masses ahead of their own dominance. Amid the boobs, blood and potential vaginal splinters — and communal defecation, farts lit on fire and gynaecological torture tools — these truths are steadfast.
While Rampling is clearly having a ball as the abbess — and still gives the figure vulnerability — it's the committed and spirited Efira who goes deep. She visibly relishes her role as well, and brings depth, nuance and poignancy to every swoop and swirl in its tonal rollercoaster ride. The skill required to slide from religiously rapturous to sexually euphoric can't be underestimated, but Efira ensures it looks seamless and never silly, even when the film swings between soapy Jesus makeout sessions, matriarchal power struggles, porn-style sapphic tumbles in the convent sheets and comets in the sky. As Verhoeven already does, his French lead makes Benedetta's audience believe in her, too. She's fervent, bold, intelligent, rebellious and passionate, all traits her character shares, and exposes as much of Benedetta's emotional landscape as she does skin.
As she navigates a torrid affair, beatific faith, the worst of Catholicism's scorn and even the looming threat of the plague (everything's a pandemic movie now), Efira is a beaming vision herself. That's part of the self-aware altar that Verhoeven worships at, knowing the glamour his star brings to a film that's always going to be known as "that lesbian nun flick" — and actively embracing the 'hot lesbian' on-screen trope while using his lead character and entire movie to subvert everything they come into contact with. He's also visually meticulous to a painterly degree; Benedetta is ravishing in multiple ways, including in the contrasting colour palette its bodies, habits and 17th-century convent life in general affords. That the feature ultimately avoids hitting just the obvious spots, embraces mayhem, gleefully provokes and doesn't completely penetrate as far as it could feels like an appropriate climax, and it's also the result that only Verhoeven could've bestowed.
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