Paul Verhoeven is known for his outrageous, violent and blasphemous films. No one does comedy and sex, thrills and erotica like Verhoeven and his newest film, Benedetta, isn’t an exception. Dubbed ‘the horny lesbian nun movie’, Benedetta sure has horny lesbian nuns, but its exploration of power becomes its most interesting aspect and asset.
Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is a devout sister in a convent in Pescia. When the convent takes in a young, abused woman Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who isn’t used to the mundane, simple life of a nun, Benedetta begins to experience terrifying, yet divine visions of Jesus Christ himself and even receives stigmata on her body and speaking in Jesus’ voice. Bartolomea and Benedetta begin an affair as Benedetta’s power within the convent grows, but is she faking it or is she a saint in the making?
Benedetta is a seamless blend of low-brow and high-brow, it’s equally tasteless and classy in its portrayal of the holy and unholy. Benedetta is also a pretty damning look at the corruption at the heart of religion and also how corrupting it is towards the individuals wrapped inside it. The film is filled with characters who are greedy, selfish and downright nasty and Verhoeven’s film is all the better and more interesting for it.
Benedetta Carlini was a real person and her relationship with Bartolomea and her visions truly happened, or at least she claimed she was the bride of Christ. But Verhoeven is much more interested in how Benedetta was able to go from a regular, devoted nun to a woman of power in an age where women rarely had power and agency. Yes, Benedetta is salacious and there is plenty of graphic sex as well as a decent sprinkling of violence, but underneath all of that, beats a rather intriguing heart.
Efira is vibrant and brilliant as the titular Benedetta, constantly toeing the line between melodrama and tragedy. She has palpable chemistry with Patakia, but it’s Charlotte Rampling who mostly steals the show as the stern Abbess of the convent. Rampling portrays her scheming ways as well as her unwavering faith, not in God but the church itself, with an unfussiness and intensity we’re used to from the veteran actress.
The sex scenes are almost blasphemous but the most disappointing element is that they are brief, with Benedetta climaxing almost immediately from any stimulation that Bartolomea gives her. It only feeds the male fantasy of women and sex, and lesbian sex, in which women can and will climax, especially through the act of penetration, involving something penis-shaped. Many won’t be happy to learn what object Bartolomea uses to penetrate Benedetta, but Verhoeven is definitely in on the joke and knows exactly what he is doing.
Benedetta may not be quite as salacious as expected and never reaches the hypnotic highs of Verhoeven’s earlier work, but it’s a surprisingly thoughtful exploration of gender, sexuality and power. It’s also hilarious and exciting, visually grand and its two-hour runtime flies by. Verhoeven proves to still be at the top of his game, but Benedetta just falls short of his most iconic work.
Benedetta screens as part of BFI London Film Festival and will be released by MUBI on March 25, 2022