Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta has had a tumultuous release schedule, his latest since 2016’s thrilling Elle (starring Isabelle Huppert). Due to have premiered at Cannes 2019, it was postponed by a year to account for its director’s illness during post-production, before being postponed again to to Cannes 2021 after the COVID-19 threw the festival circuit into disarray. Since then, distribution has been uncertain: recent news suggests that a limited theatrical run will begin on April 15th in the UK and Ireland, while MUBI is looking at a streamer release of July 1st.
So even though we are effectively dealing with a 3-year film-in-gestation, it’s good to have the Dutch master return to our screens, no less with a film in which the bubonic plague forms an integral part of its second half. Virgine Efira plays Benedetta Carlini, the daughter of a wealthy property owner who is admitted into a convent in Tuscany as a young girl. Showing promise and the suggestion of the divine touch at an early age, we skip ahead 18 years, where Benedetta expresses bounteous devotion to her faith, helming bizarre stage nativities in the abbey church, while still under the tutelage of the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling; her second ‘Reverend Mother’ role in the last 12 months).
During a visit from her parents, a young peasant’s daughter Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) breaches the abbey grounds, begging for entry to escape the clutches of her abusive father. Benedetta’s father obliges the girl (for only dowry ensures admittance onto sacred ground), and Bartolomea joins the ranks of the nunnery, becoming a kind of mentee to the bewildered Benedetta. Eventually, sexual tension develops into sapphistic passion between the two women, coinciding with Benedetta’s growing sleep terrors and the appearance of stigmata on her body. The latter causes a stir in the religious hierarchy, opening a window of power for Benedetta and the cynical Provost (Olivier Rabourdin), but threatening the existing order instilled by the Abbess and the Florentine Nuncio (Lambert Wilson).
While the setting may seem unfamiliar to a director who still enjoys cult success from his science-fiction satires (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), the themes of transgressive sexuality and malleable moral landscapes are all familiar concerns within Verhoeven’s body of work, most especially his erotic thriller romps of the 1990s (Basic Instinct, Showgirls). In that case, Benedetta certainly belongs to the latter. As always, Verhoeven displays a cunning intelligence underneath a litany of satirical gags punctuated by moments of purging violence. But whereas Elle, as one of contemporary cinema’s truly provocative comebacks, also indicated Verhoeven’s enduring focus on genre itself as a locus of critique towards broader socio-sexual concerns, Benedetta does so with a narrative trajectory that uses its characters to explore a variety of themes, none of which are truly developed towards a fresh conclusion.
For those with even a side-glance knowledge of the Nunsploitation genre, a film about lesbian nuns certainly fulfills the genre’s most basic expectations, even flirting with the tropes of a wealthy heiress ‘lured’ into sexual embrace by a poorer, yet sexually-experienced woman. But Verhoeven’s acknowledgements reside towards the more accomplished, albeit still ludicrous, fare of Ken Russell’s The Devils and Jacques Rivette’s The Nun. With particular debt to the former, the director’s main intentions here are noble – the unravelling of political machinations within the Catholic Church – but not necessarily effected with the sense of urgency that his previous work has been.
While the visuals are predominantly tame, Verhoeven often veers into the fantastical, both to portray Benedetta’s messianic fantasies and their seep into the real world. A key instance of the latter directly evokes the Technicolor nightmarishness of a scene from Powell & Pressburger’s own nun-centred Black Narcissus, when the daughter of the now-demoted reverend mother perches dangerously on the roof of the convent church, the sky behind her chroma-keyed into an apocalyptic canvas, ember-red and purplish in its depiction of a comet falling to the Earth.
Equally, the first signs of the film’s satirical strain come in the form of Benedetta’s deep reveries of being saved by Christ, presented in chalkboard-scraping perfection as a kind of superhero lover, shepherding idyllic plains and slaying ravenous snakes and would-be rapists alike to save the young damsel-in-devotion. It is this film’s medieval version of Verhoeven’s trademark leaps into inter-textual imagery, like the news footage of Robocop and Starship Troopers, or the video-game sequence in Elle. Never one to embrace subtlety, it is a telling contrast when Verhoeven follows a sequence of Christ guiding sheep on the plain with the introduction of Bartolomea’s character, stumbling onto the convent grounds with another flock of sheep given chase by her violent, wolfish father.
But whereas the director previously made a note of blurring the distinctions between the medium and ‘reality’, Benedetta can be argued to betray this rigour. Instead of keeping us at bay as to whether Benedetta is a false prophet or not, Verhoeven atheistically succumbs to the trappings of the film’s roots as a true story, revealing Benedetta’s true nature, and leading us to a stake-burning climax which overturns some expectations but ultimately commits to the tropes of its real-world debts and cine-literate influences, including Father Grandier’s execution sequence in The Devils and the enduringly prominent Joan of Arc tale. In that sense, all the playfulness in the run-up to its finale becomes somewhat deflated. “We must all play our roles to the end, mustn’t we?” the Nuncio tells Benedetta late in the film. One wishes Verhoeven too kept this credo by leaving his own narrative logic untouched.
As suggested in the above synopsis, a lot happens in Benedetta. It really isn’t long before Benedetta’s relationship with Bartolomea kicks off in order for other parts of the story to unfold. Perhaps to its advantage, since this is a film that combines its portrayal of sexual trangression with its heroine’s muddied morality in order to deconstruct the hegemonic, materialistic rule of the Church and the performativity of ‘true faith’. As with Catherine Trammel, we are led to root for Benedetta, but we’re constantly nagged at the back of our heads that this figure is inherently rotten to her own core, despite her disruption of the ruling forces.
If it seems that I am slightly disappointed by Verhoeven’s latest film, this is not entirely the case. Efira’s performance lends nuance to a character typical of Verhoeven’s films, at once both sympathetic yet challenging to our identification with her plights and ploys. Just as we came to question Elle’s actions after her rape, Benedetta’s ascension to power is deeply questionable, especially when bodies begin piling up on the plague-ridden streets outside the convent, or the Inquisition begins torturing those close to her.
Likewise, Daphne Patakia’s Bartolomea demonstrates an engaging counterpoint to Benedetta’s journey, challenging her mistress’ sexual preconceptions through their relationship, yet providing a complex variation on the film’s philosophy of the body as a conduit for suffering (“your worst enemy is your body”). Whereas Benedetta ultimately inflicts suffering upon herself as a means of being closer to God (and thus to clerical power), Bartolomea endures true suffering always at the hands of others (including her lover), encountering the world as one large, punishing entity.
Moreover, Verhoeven’s provocation is always packaged with an incisive sense of humour, whether it’s the writing or the imagery. Regarding the latter, I would argue that, in this country, a nun being penetrated by a dildo fashioned out of a statuette of the Virgin Mary produces a laugh as with no other national audience (as moments such as this did at VMDIFF 2022; our historical trauma continues to rest heavy), but I’m certain scenes such as this will have a carrying-power across the board. The same can be said for a scene in which the Inquisition ransacks the abbey in search of Benedetta’s coveted statuette (the evidence of her transgressions against church and state), uncovering it in a cavity within the pages of the Abbey’s accounts ledger (get it?).
So, it’s not that Verhoeven is working to the minimum of his facilities, but Benedetta often eschews one resounding critical concern for a broad panoply of others – the body as a transgressive force against corrupt religious dogma; the delusory effects of religious zealotry; and even, social inequality during plague etc. Indeed, we’ve seen this before – but it won’t stop us laughing with it.