You probably won’t be shocked to hear that Paul Verhoeven’s erotic drama about the relationship between two horny nuns in a 17th century Italian convent — a sacrilegious affair that became one of modern Western civilization’s earliest documented instances of lesbianism after a parish scrivener wrote about it in his diary with curiously exacting detail — isn’t quite the restrained sapphic romance that period films like “Carol,” “Ammonite,” and “The World to Come” have popularized in recent years. On the contrary, “Benedetta” is a movie in which the abbess of a convent gets fucked by a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that someone has whittled into a dildo for her. The director of “Robocop,” “Showgirls,” and “Starship Troopers” has never had much use for subtlety or unspoken yearning, and his unholy adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s history book “Immodest Acts” feels closer in spirit to “The Devils” than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” even before the film supplements its source material with a dick-less Christ, demonic omens, and a COVID-ready subplot about the efficacy of lockdown measures against the Plague.
And yet, despite a handful of headline-worthy moments and a generally blasphemous — or perhaps just humanistic? — attitude toward the dogmas of the Catholic Church, “Benedetta” can’t help but feel like one of Verhoeven’s tamer efforts. You get the sense that’s by design to a certain extent: While certainly not making any concessions to the puritan crowd, Verhoeven is only interested in provocation so far as it might slap people into appreciating how “God’s will” tends to reflect the self-interests of those who see fit to enforce it (anyone who would be outraged by the content of this movie will already be outraged by the mere idea of it). As an agnostic who’s spoken about the sudden attacks of faith he experienced as a younger man, Verhoeven is also palpably conflicted about the extent to which someone can negotiate their view of Christ before they begin to worship something else. A fascist society’s fetish for pain is a natural thing to subvert, but a religious person’s desire for pleasure is only brought to crisis by a softer touch.
His uncertainty might have been an asset for “Benedetta” if the movie were more attuned to that of its namesake. Verhoeven’s focus on Benedetta Carlini’s vagina is the closest the film ever gets to giving her character a believable sense a sense of interiority. Embodied by a severe and increasingly opaque Virginie Effira, Benedetta is a devout believer in Jesus’ love who isn’t always sure how best to return it. A certain grandiosity has accompanied her faith ever since she was accepted to the convent as a child bride for Christ (complete with a massive dowry from her father), and she hears her dead husband’s voice in her head with a frequency and fervor associated with Joan of Arc.
But the only war that Benedetta has to wage is the one against the integrity of her own beliefs, even if that internal conflict escalates into a power struggle with the Abbess (a typically withering Charlotte Rampling) after Benedetta’s orgasmic visions of Jesus earn her a measure of local celebrity. Garishly rendered against slabs of green screen in a way that underlines how ugly the rest of the film looks as well — Jeanne Lapoirie’s unvarnished cinematography always emphasizing the drab earthiness of a mortal coil on which even nuns are in the habit of farting, shitting, and screwing each other over — these dream sequences make it obvious that Benedetta took her wedding vows seriously. Less explicable is the stigmata she begins to suffer in her sleep, or what it has to do with the doe-eyed new girl who the nunnery has agreed to keep safe from her sexually abusive father and brothers.
At once both innocent and traumatized, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is a natural foil for Benedetta, who often seems traumatized by her innocence. There’s an instant jolt of intimacy between these two beautiful women, though Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke are careful that it never sparks into anything sentimental. They care about each other, but their bond hinges less on romance than erotic religiosity; Benedetta’s heart belongs to Jesus, and she tends to punish any stray thoughts with the infliction of physical pain. Suffering is the way to know Christ, after all, but then what is Benedetta to make of her pleasure?
Verhoeven obviously rejects the idea that our bodies are not meant to be enjoyed — his argument reinforced by an overstuffed third act that exchanges naked young women for Christopher Lambert and the festering boils of the Black Death — but he couldn’t be less interested in the theological bargaining that’s required for Benedetta to arrive at a similar conclusion. There’s no psychology here, only Machiavellian power grabs that spiral out of control when their ramifications spill out into the streets of Italy and soak through the blood-red skies above.
This is a film that asks “who decides what is God’s will?” in the least rhetorical fashion, and finds that the answer is often “sniveling little men,” but always “people of flesh and blood.” Smirking at the money that changes hands behind the scenes and rolling his eyes at how all of the story’s holiest figures just make things up as they go along, Verhoeven is fascinated by the idea of a woman manipulating the tackiest parts of the Catholic Church in order to actually grow closer to her faith.
“Benedetta” invites you to laugh along with all of its campy flourishes and easy punchlines about “coming to Jesus,” its tongue firmly in cheek (among other places) during even its most serious moments. And yet, the closer Benedetta herself gets to achieving the ecstasy that might explicate her suffering, the further she recedes into the margins of her own movie. Too humble and open-minded to define the heroine’s dilemma, Verhoeven simply opts to focus on simpler things.
It isn’t long before Benedetta is reduced to a cheap symbol of the religious panic that follows in her path, as Effira’s performance — a defensive crouch tucked inside a confusing shell of faith-based swagger — denies whatever interest we might have in the character, deflecting our attention instead to the overlapping paroxysms of religious panic that threaten to damn everyone in the entire parish. If there’s a lacerating beauty in the way that Benedetta’s pragmatic approach to Jesus pays off, our interest in their relationship goes up in flames long before we reach the film’s (hilariously choreographed) final scene. By the time “Benedetta” fades to a close, Verhoeven’s gleefully impertinent tale of pleasure and pain has grown numb to God’s touch.
“Benedetta” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. IFC will release it in the United States later this year.