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Paul Verhoeven has a penchant for penetrative objects, such as the ice pick in his 1986 film Basic Instinct belonging to Sharon Stone, but the hand-carved wooden tool of pleasure shaped from a statue of the Virgin Mary, in his latest film Benedetta sends his fetish to new extremes. Verhoeven draws his screenplay froma 1986 novel by Judith C. Brown called Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy which details the life of the titular 17th century nun, played by Virginia Efira, in Pescia as she becomes the abbess, consecrating her position through a series of controversial divine interventions.
After adopting the downtrodden Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), romance begins to brew between the two sisters to the suspicion of the former abbess, sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) thrusting the film’s tension forward. Following on from Elle, his 2016 story about a sexually abused woman played by Isabelle Huppert, Verhoeven has successfully refashioned similar themes and formalities in Benedetta albeit in a different era and country this time.
The turmoil of the plot centres around the chaotic chemistry between Benedetta and Bartolomea whose unbridled love for one another makes their relationship complicated. Verhoeven uses this relationship as a vessel to explore the broader spectrum of denunciation and heresy toward mis-believers prevalent in the era. Benedetta’s notoriety is built around her claims that certain events occurred but the nefarious sister Felicita casts her doubts on them. These polarising views within the convent make the film question principles of the enlightenment such as subjectivity and the importance of personal experience, a theme which resonates strongly in today’s political climate in which emotional hysteria takes greater resonance than scientific acuity.
Benedetta evocatively recreates the era in resplendent ochre and dim, fire-lit colours through a magnificent job by production designer Katia Wyszkop. The hissing candles can be heard reverberating throughout the background of scenes and the dingy catacombs are wrought with shadows and mystique. Verhoeven has embraced technology of the twenty-first century including CGI animation adding to the veracity of his style. This can be seen through the similarities of the aesthetic of his previous film Elle through the incorporation of the snarly, twisted voice of Benedetta when her authority is questioned and the computer game graphics recreating deadly melees between Benedetta, snakes and the figure of Jesus. Verhoeven’s acceptance of modern technology shows that an old cat can learn new tricks.
One issue about Benedetta stems from whether the film is exploitation cinema or something more sophisticated, in the vein of art-house erotica, which Verhoeven is known to have dabbled in. The reason for suggesting a misunderstanding is because the majority of the film is spent focussing on Benedetta and Bartolomea in erotic exchanges. Verhoeven has made an imprint as a genre filmmaker through high-concept films like RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Total Recall. With Benedetta, Verhoeven appears to be finding the middle-ground between genre cinema and art house but it’s still confusing.
Benedetta doesn’t fall far from the stylistic imprint of Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre, using CGI effects and an aversion to exploitation cinema as the central story revolves around lesbian nuns in 17th century Italy. It even self-referentially includes chiselled and sharp objects which Verhoeven has used characteristically in films like Basic Instinct.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia
Writers: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, (based on the novel Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown)
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