Review: Paul Verhoeven messes us up with ‘Benedetta’

Christmas is just around the corner and Paul Verhoeven left us a gift this holy season: a movie featuring lesbian nuns, frontal nudity, tons of sex, Catholic hypocrisy, and brutal self-flagellation. Happy birthday, Jesus!

“Benedetta” doesn’t know if this is a scathing indictment against religion, a horror movie, a thriller, or an adult movie. In the end, it doesn’t matter. He hopes to shock us with things like a wooden figurine of the Virgin Mary reused as a sex toy, but, for the most part, that just annoys.

Inspired by Judith C. Brown’s “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”, Verhoeven tells the story of Benedetta, a 17th century nun in the plague-ravaged Tuscan town of Pescia who seems to have a gift divine and also suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions.

In a vision, she sees Jesus nailed to the cross, a crown of thorns around his temple, bleeding from stab wounds. “Take off your clothes,” he asks her. If you don’t know whether to laugh or not, you are not alone. It’s like “Showgirls” in a convent.

Benedetta is played by Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who finds herself more naked than she would be if she were in porn. (Sample dialogue: “I saw your breasts. I saw them.” Yes, we all did, sister.)

Her character begins an illicit affair with another nun (played fiercely by Daphne Patakia) then develops signs of stigmata during her sleep. Is she really visited by God or is she reconciled with a careful self-cut?

The head of the convent – played by Charlotte Rampling who gives this film more seriousness than it deserves – is suspect. “No miracles happen in bed, trust me,” she says in one of the best lines. But the head of the local church sees this seemingly blessed nun as an opportunity to move up the chain of command and make Pescia a magnet for pilgrims – like Assisi.

A courageous nun refuses to accept a lie. “People need to know. What is going on here is blasphemy,” she said. The head of the convent replied: “Everyone who matters already knows that.

But like the cynics around her mount, Benedetta must do bigger and bigger stunts to prove that she is chosen. She claims that Jesus told her that as long as she lives, everyone will live. How convenient.

Verhoeven – who directs and co-writes the screenplay with David Birke – is not interested in the truth of this nun. When Benedetta is questioned privately by her lover if she has faked the stigmata, she responds, “I don’t know. I don’t know how God makes things happen.” The truth is not important here, only the appearance of the truth. (Never ask naked truth questions here.)

Everything is so over the top that it sidesteps the border of comedy. Verhoeven has never been very subtle with his targets – say, American hegemony with “Starship Troopers” and the authoritarian state with “RoboCop”. Here it is as sharp as a dull bread knife.

The exploiter “Benedetta” seems to want to stoke religious hypocrisy, but he actually reveals the filmmaker’s: How does it help his mission to expose a corrupt system to show a horrific torture scene with a naked nun?

There might be an intriguing movie here somewhere – “Who decides what God’s will is?” is a lingering question – but to find it you need to weed out all the libertine, ultra-violent excesses that are clearly meant to push buttons, like a 5-year-old testing her parents’ patience. Yawn.

Plus, it takes a special kind of nerve in 2021 for an elderly man to make a film claiming to defend the liberation of women in a rigid male hierarchy by showing exclusive female nudity and a dry same-sex bump. The only blessing here is when it’s over.

“Benedetta”, an IFC Films release, is rated R for “nudity, sex scenes, suicide and language”. Duration: 126 minutes. No out of four stars.


MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.




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