It’ll come as no surprise to many to hear that Paul Verhoeven’s horny lesbian nun movie Benedetta — a film in which at one point a statuette of the Virgin Mary is carved into being a sex toy — is belligerently unsubtle. Yet for a movie of such big erotic swings, things remain surprisingly unsurprising. In a couple ways, it sort of encapsulates the director’s best and worst instincts. This is material that plays with two of Verhoeven’s more engaging recurring interests, spiritual faith and human impulse, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film wants to jolt us into a response, with its supposed transgressions often feeling tired or strained, undercutting the film’s sincerity in the process. Which is a bit sad seeing how Verhoeven first came to the U.S., after rising to fame in the Netherlands, and conquered Hollywood cinema by bringing both devil-may-care vigor and a European sense of irony to the sleaze of Basic Instinct and Showgirls and the sci-fi shoot-’em-ups of Robocop and Total Recall. But ever since he’s made his return back to Europe, he’s become much more of a prestige provocateur, with Benedetta seemingly looking to combine the more recently somber Verhoeven with that of the more horndog auteur of the past.
Based loosely on a true story, and adapted partly from Judith Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film charts the life of the titular Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), a devout woman who claims to communicate with God and soon suspectedly rises to power in a Tuscany convent while she discovers her forbidden sexuality. Yet this isn’t a tale of innocence lost; the world around Benedetta is already morally compromised before she gets there, as we see in the cynical haggling over her dowry between her father and the convent’s abbess (a withering Charlotte Rampling) in one of the film’s first scenes. Young Benedetta, however, is pure in her devotion, and even finds something spiritual in her first pangs of desire. Or is it the other way around? Her first night there, as she prays to a large statue of the Virgin Mary, the statue collapses on her; Benedetta, finding herself face-to-face with the fallen Virgin’s bare breast and she starts to suck on it. To her, this seems to be both an instinctive and a pious act. And much of the film that follows involves the torrid, complicated affair between the grown-up Benedetta and Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a young peasant woman who is accepted into the convent after she runs into it trying to hide from her abusive father.
The earthy, early scenes of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship are probably when the film’s at its best, with the wide-eyed Patakia bringing a hungry, primal energy to her interactions with the more reserved, angel-faced Efira, whose Benedetta finds in herself both the urge to embrace and punish this woman. Benedetta’s occasional visions of Jesus (shown often as a hunky stud who will slay any number of snakes with his beautiful sword) suggest an attempt to reconcile the initial tension between desire and the divine. But Benedetta is told that communing with Jesus is a joyful event in the same breath that she is told it requires a great deal of suffering; which seemingly draws the parallel of finding God not being all that different from the unbearable aches of carnal desire. But there’s a large fundamental mystery about Benedetta and her supposed mysticism. Is she really talking to Jesus? Is she really experiencing stigmata, or is it all a ruse staged with a well-concealed shard of glass? And what about that booming, authoritative (and apparently male) voice she adopts in her visions? Is she a prophet or a charlatan? By actually showing us her early visions of Christ, Verhoeven seems at first to accept Benedetta’s divinity at face value. Later scenes, though, don’t seem so certain. At times, Benedetta herself seems unsure. So maybe there’s something here about the way the certainty of youth gives way to the ambiguity and confusion of adulthood?
Undoubtedly, though, this is a film that asks “who decides what is God’s will?” in the least rhetorical of fashions, and finds that the answer is often “sniveling 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 seems pretty fascinated by the idea of a woman possibly if not certainly manipulating the tackiest parts of the Catholic Church in order to actually grow closer to her faith. And Benedetta invites you to laugh along with all of its campy flourishes and easy punchlines about “coming to Jesus,” as it tries to keep its tongue firmly in cheek 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.
As Benedetta lurches on, it’s hard not to feel like the filmmaker is losing track of all the balls he’s tossed in the air. He retains the showmanship of his Hollywood years, the embrace of the sensational, but not the vitality. That’s not always a bad thing — the patience and simplicity of many filmmakers’ later works is something to cherish — but the missing energy isn’t being replaced by wisdom nor clarity. 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 denies whatever interest we might have in the character, deflecting our attention instead to the overlapping attacks 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 final scene. By the time Benedetta fades to a close, Verhoeven’s gleefully insolent tale of pleasure and pain has grown numb to God’s touch. At its most pleasurable when it swings for torrid blasphemy, Benedetta in the end carries a more tired sense of provocation, one used to paper over to the film’s truly tamer, oversimplified core.
Benedetta is playing in Select Theaters