Six years after he released his superb revenge thriller 'Elle', Paul Verhoeven - creep, misogynist, sly subversive, frequent genius and one of our greatest living directors - is back. With 'Benedetta', Verhoeven has set his sights on subgenre of 1970s Euro sleaze: nunsploitation.
The film's story adapts 'Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy', historian Judith C. Brown's 1986 book about Sister Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century mystic whose claims of visions led to some snooping by the Church that uncovered her sapphic relationship with another nun. Carlini defended herself by claiming she had been possessed by a male demon known as Splenditello. The surviving documentation of her trial has provided historians with a rare window into both sexuality and religious practice in the late Renaissance.
Like his first Hollywood movie 'Flesh and Blood', Verhoeven's latest film is grimy, gnarly and unafraid of the seediest implications of its medieval-era setting. 'Benedetta' begins with a daylight robbery, a bird shitting into a one-eyed man's healthy socket, and then a guy farting a jet of fire at a troupe of performers dressed as skeletons.
Delivered to the convent at the age of nine by her father, Benedetta (Virginie Efira, 'Sink or Swim'), a beautiful 20-something nun who lives in the plague-ravaged Tuscan city of Pescia, seems to have a divine gift. She also suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. In one vision, she is menaced by gigantic serpents, only for a dashing Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié) to slice them up with a broadsword. In another, Jesus is nailed on the cross, a crown of thorns around His temple. "Take off your clothes," the hunky Messiah tells her.
Benedetta begins a lusty affair with equally horny fellow nun, Sister Bartolemea (a feral turn by Daphne Patakia), which involves a meet-cute where the two women fart and defecate next to each other. Then Benedetta develops the signs of stigmata while sleeping. Is she really being visited by God or just conning everyone with some advantageous self-mutilation?
The movie is ambiguous about her true nature and intentions. She makes a good decision about fortifying the city to prevent an invasion of villagers carrying the plague. On the other hand, she is extremely manipulative and plays the religious faith to her own advantage in her rise to protect herself, not unlike a modern-day politician slyly manoeuvring in order to gain popular support through image and fervour.
Verhoeven's latest film is grimy, gnarly and unafraid of the seediest implications of its medieval-era setting.
The Reverend Mother (played completely straight by a French-speaking Charlotte Rampling, 'Dune') has her own suspicions. However, the local church head sees, in this nun with a direct line to Jesus, an opportunity to rise up the food chain and make Pescia a tourism hotspot for pilgrims.
'Benedetta' isn't subtle - the movie is alternately deadly serious and amazingly goofy, raising intriguing questions about belief and sexuality, then answering them in very silly ways. This is further reflected in cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie's visuals - some candle-lit scenes are composed in a beautiful painterly fashion, whereas some daylight scenes look like a TV soap opera. Verhoeven doesn't believe in tasteful framing that implies nudity; he prefers the bare-bottomed variety, the kind that accentuates the vulnerability of the human body. If you are familiar with his oeuvre as a director, you don't need to ask: yes, there are tons of bare breasts.
Anchored by a nuanced performance from Efira, who never lets the audience know what is going on in her character's head until the very end, the film's most vivid moments stem from a lack of inhibition, a frankness about sexuality and a willingness to go hell for leather where other movies would cower behind restraint. It's tasteless, but owns it and doesn't try to wimp out as many historical dramas often do.
Is 'Benedetta' a great film? Nope. But it's certainly a horny, interesting one. You won't be bored.