Benedetta Review – Provocateur Paul Verhoeven Has the Hypocrisy of Religion in His Sights With This Nunsploitation Flick

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Cinematic provocateur Paul Verhoeven has the hypocrisy of religion in his sight in his new feature Benedetta. An adaptation of the fact-based book ‘Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun’ by Judith C Brown, Verhoeven and his co-writer David Birke tackle the power of The Church in the 17th century via the story of a nun whose meteoric rise to power in a provincial Italian convent is cut short when rumours of her lesbian relationship with a novice surface.

Benedetta (Elena Plonka), a child with a prodigious religious imagination, is sold into the convent at the age of nine. Coming from wealth and privilege she is handed over to the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) after her father does a deal that financially benefits the convent. Benedetta believes that she has a unique relationship with the Virgin Mary and can summon her will. Praying to a statue of the Virgin results in the statue falling from its plinth but not crushing the child. It also results in the child suckling the virgin’s bared breast, a scene which tonally informs where Verhoeven’s film is heading. It is simulataneously miraculous, uncomfortably erotic, and absurd.

Flash forward eighteen years and Benedetta (Virginie Efrie) has adjusted to life in the convent and due to her rank is treated to a life that would elude many women outside the protection of the church. The stark contrast between her life and the life of many other women is brought to the fore with the introduction of Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) the abused daughter of a shepherd who bangs on the gates of the convent asking for shelter as her father threatens to strangle her. The Abbess insists that the convent is not a place of charity but fortunately for Bartolomea, Benedetta and her family promise to cover the costs of taking the young woman in. Essentially Bartolomea is gifted to Benedetta.

Almost immediately Bendetta is attracted to the earthy Bartolomea, an attraction that troubles her and leads her to acts of cruelty. Whilst her attraction to the novice grows Benedetta starts to experience ecstatic visions of Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié) whose form is revealed to include a lack of male genitals. Benedetta’s visions manifest as stigmata and soon she is voted to the position of Abbess in the convent which demotes Rampling’s character to Sister Felicita and brings the ire of Felicita’s daughter Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte).

Benedetta’s rise to power is accompanied by her growing sexual relationship with Bartolomea. Verhoeven spares the viewer little in the sex scenes between the pair. They are frenzied rather than tender and titillation seems to be key in their creation. I suspect at some level Verhoeven is also attempting to add an element of camp, especially as Bartolomea fashions a dildo out of Benedetta’s childhood statuette of the Virgin Mary. Ken Russell managed to balance camp with eroticism in his film The Devils, and like Russell, Verhoeven is far from a subtle director. Regardless of whether the viewer finds the sex scenes heavily influenced by the male gaze, it is a female gaze that diegetically is watching the women – Sister Felicita has created her own spy hole into Benedetta’s chamber and with proof of Benedetta’s transgressions she travels to the Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) to report her findings and rid herself and the convent of the lustful and possibly deceitful Benedetta.

Outside the walls of Pescia the plague has taken hold. Benedetta has positioned herself as a conduit of Jesus and speaks his will. During the phenomenon of a comet lighting the sky she promises the townsfolk that it is Jesus’ will protecting them from the illness and sin. Benedetta has become immensely powerful in her community. Her stigmata is considered miraculous and she dissociates and “speaks” as the Lord’s vessel. Even a challenge from the Papacy may not be enough to fully unseat her popularity.

Verhoeven has a lot going on in his screenplay and some of that translates into the film successfully, other times it just seems he’s throwing concepts to see how well they stick. Benedetta sticks the boot into faith yet doesn’t quite reach the level of expressing that it is a hollow pursuit. Lambert Wilson’s Nuncio Alfonso is the pinnacle of the hypocrisy of the Church. He sits in luxury, waited on by a pregnant servant who is clearly carrying his child. For men the Church has different standards. Of course none of this is news, anyone with the smallest religious education knows that the Church has been an institution of misogyny and corruption since the insistence of the Virgin Birth. Verhoeven isn’t digging deep to find insights. If anything he’s creating a spectacle that is almost carnivalesque. Excess is at the heart of the film which is barely eyebrow raising considering Verhoeven’s career.

Virgine Efrie gives a brave performance as the deluding and delusional Benedetta, but it is Charlotte Rampling’s grounded and practical Felicita who seems to be Verhoeven’s vehicle for unlocking the film. For all the agony and ecstasy the bottom line is faith may be free but nothing else surrounding it is. To call the film an allegory would be giving it too much credit. Verhoeven’s piece is straightforward if somewhat messy. After years of Nunsploitation films Verhoeven’s work doesn’t shock but it’s very clear that it will offend certain audience members. There is an excess of violence, pestilence, grotesque bodies which fail to be redeemed by the purification of the church. In short, there’s a surfeit of ideas in Benedetta that more or less are explored, however there is also a puerile aspect to the film that holds it back from being deeply meaningful or even moving.

Verhoeven is a director that has been misunderstood and reappraised several times. People reclaimed both his critical failures Starship Troopers and Showgirls by pointing out the very obvious fact that they were camp satires. Benedetta may be a camp satire but it seems to play out much more plainly. The film is what it is and won’t require a reappraisal. Verhoeven’s career is storied and Benedetta is appropriately his work, for better or worse.

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)

Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Music: Anne Dudley

Editing: Job ter Burg

Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, Jérôme Seydoux

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