Benedetta movie review: A ride through horny church and sexy jail

Paul Verhoeven, you horny motherfucker, you’ve done it once again.

Couple of filmmakers have actually gone far on their own strongly challenging the nigh-puritanical state of contemporary movie theater the method Verhoeven has. His signature design is everything about doing the most when it pertains to depicitions of sex and violence, weding unjustified aesthetic appeals to unusual consideration. That technique has actually made him a great deal of success, even if it’s generally been postponed up until long after his movies best.

Verhoeven’s ’80s and ’90s stretch of big-budget Hollywood movies are spectacular in retrospection. He made 5 movies with unequal business and important success — RoboCop, Overall Remember, Standard Impulse, Showgirls and Starship Troopers — however nearly all of them have actually given that been reappraised and applauded for the astonishing methods they mix uncompromised sociopolitical satire and category convention.

The Paul Verhoeven of the 21st century has actually slowed his output and taken it outdoors Hollywood. Benedetta, his very first movie given that 2016’s well-known thriller Elle, is maybe the most freely intriguing movie of 2021, and perhaps of Verhoeven’s filmography also. Benedetta focuses on religious scandal and the sexual taboo of a lesbian affair in a convent. Provocative in every sense of the word, the movie is equally capable of drawing viewers in with its witty study of sexuality and faith, and turning them away with its unabashed titillation. In this movie, as in many of Verhoeven’s previous works, those two opposing forces are very much the point.

Benedetta and Bartolomea in the film Benedetta

Photo: IFC Films

The story is set in 17th-century Italy, where the nun Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has felt the touch of the supernatural in her life given that childhood. A belief that God speaks to her has been continually reaffirmed by small miracles that spared her and her family in childhood, leading her family to commit her life to God and send her to a convent. When she comes of age, her daily life in the convent is upended by the arrival of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), as they begin a secret love affair. At about the same time, her visions take an erotic turn, and her sexual awakening is entangled in a spiritual one.

When Benedetta begins to exhibit stigmata and speak with the voice of God, her status in the convent rapidly rises, threatening the authority of the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) in charge of the convent — who also suspects Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair. As Benedetta’s power grows within the convent, some see her as a saint, the only thing keeping the plague away from their villa. Others suspect her visions are lies. No one really knows about their sexual nature, but the convent is a political place — Benedetta desiring power is sinful enough, and if she isn’t telling the truth, she may be guilty of more.

Based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Bowen, Benedetta is a dizzying genre hybrid. It’s presented at times with the severity and airs of a historical drama, but injected with the mean wit of a black comedy, and all wrapped in an erotic thriller. It delights in acts of blasphemy, constantly juxtaposing the sacred and the profane: a dildo carved from a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a vision of Christ crucified and commanding Benedetta to strip, naked bodies writhing in pleasure in holy places, where they are later sexually tortured.

In these juxtapositions, Benedetta’s provocations bare their teeth: If the sisters of the convent are married to Christ in word, why not in deed? Are carnal and spiritual desire that different? Verhoeven poses many questions in Benedetta, and offers few answers. Like the Bible that the early Catholic church claimed its authority from but kept the common people from reading, the movie supports endless interpretation, and courts easy rejection.

Some may find Benedetta too exploitative to take seriously. That criticism has its merits: The movie’s lasciviousness can be read as being meant for the camera as much as it is for the characters. Its queerness can come across as something purely meant to titillate straight men. But in the context of the rigid confines of Catholicism at the peak of its powers, Verhoeven’s argument for Benedetta’s extremes is compelling. He presses the sacred against the profane, and brings the spiritual denial of the human experience into question.

Throughout Benedetta, God is just a cover, and few are actually protected when He’s invoked. The convent claims it does the Lord’s work, but it only accepts girls whose families can pay a “dowry.” A papal ambassador arrives in town, but brings the plague with him. And as Benedetta begins to assert her sainthood, Bartolomea becomes disposable to her. When desire is denied and hidden behind euphemism, it cannot be understood, Verhoeven suggests, and unexamined desire can become thoughtless consumption.

Benedetta is driven through a mob in a cart in the film Benedetta

Photo: IFC Films

In some forms of Christianity, the ultimate sin is blasphemy — words or deeds that demonstrate contempt for God, or a desire to desecrate what is holy. It’s also a convenient sin, a flexible charge that can be levied against any opponent of the religious order in question. In the Church’s eyes, a blasphemer’s very contemplation of the act they’re accused of could be seen as a shock and affront to the status quo. That sets up a scenario where the faithful can feel they shouldn’t even attempt to understand the accused and their beliefs, lest they find themselves on the road to blasphemy as well.

This is ultimately Verhoeven’s wickedest trick in Benedetta, a film that gleefully dares audiences to find it blasphemous, an affront to some sensibility or another. It bears the stigma of smut because on one level it is, an irreverent and mischievous work that aims to shock you with its prurience — but it’s likewise about that shock as another system of control. Like RoboCop’s violent deconstruction of how capitalism deforms cities and Starship Troopers’ brutal takedown of war as a mechanism for fostering a more fascist culture, Benedetta can be checked out as a cinematic tract versus a culture of repression, where the collective rejection of the range of human sexuality in the name of sainthood is simply another method to develop more horrible sinners in trick.

Benedetta opens in theaters on Dec. 3, and will be offered for digital leasing on Dec. 21.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.