THE STORY – A 17th-century nun becomes entangled in a forbidden lesbian affair, but it’s her shocking religious visions that threaten to shake the Church to its very core.
THE CAST – Virginie Efira, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau, Charlotte Rampling & Hervé Pierre
THE TEAM – Paul Verhoeven (Director/Writer) & David Birke (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 minutes
By Tom O’Brien
Just imagine — Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, he of “Basic Instinct” fame and “Showgirls” notoriety, directing a lesbian romp set behind the walls of a 17th Century convent. The mind reels at the erotic possibilities. But if you suspect that his latest film, “Benedetta,” might be akin to “Showgirls 2,” you’ll soon realize that here the 83-year-old filmmaker has much more on his mind than mere shock value, as he fashions instead a film that manages to be at once both boldly perceptive and wildly entertaining.
Yes, there are all of the signature Verhoeven touches that we have come to know and love — beaucoup nudity, shocking violence, explicit sex, torture devices, and, of course, blasphemy. Lots and lots of blasphemy, highlighted by a swashbuckling Jesus on horseback. On its surface, “Benedetta” captures the familiar visual style of many religious films, with its period stone walls, candle-lit interiors, and well-appointed costumes. But it is what’s boiling within those convent walls that really interests Verhoeven.
Based on the true story of Italian nun Bernadetta Cardini, Verhoeven and his co-screenwriter David Birke (“Elle“) pick up young Benedetta as she is about to be sold into a convent at age 15, firm in her belief that the Virgin Mary can speak to her as she tightly clutches her cherished statuette of the Blessed Mother. This phallus-shaped figurine will figure prominently (in a very different context) in Act 3. Eighteen years later, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has become a respected member of the nunnery, thriving under its penny-pinching Mother Superior (a fabulous Charlotte Rampling). However, things rapidly change for Benedetta with the arrival of Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), a young woman fleeing from the brutality of her rapist father. Sparks soon begin to fly between the two. While there is initial hesitancy in Benedetta’s response to Bartolomea’s amorous advances, one thing eventually leads to another, as they so often do in Verhoeven’s films.
The problem is that Benedetta keeps having visions of her hunky Christ, with the result of one such dream awakening to find her hands and feet bleeding — a stigmata that is often the first step of a penitent toward sainthood. Mother Superior thinks she’s faking it, but the local church provost encourages Benedetta’s claims — after all, having a potential saint in the village will certainly draw pilgrims who in turn will put stacks of lire into the church’s pockets.
The corruption and hypocrisy of the church are pretty easy targets. Still, it’s just how Verhoeven chooses to deliver his barbs that distinguishes “Benedetta,” as he opts to use humor, with genuine laugh-out-loud comedy, as the film’s secret weapon. These are not the “so-bad-it’s-good” chuckles of “Showgirls” — this is the “so-good-it’s-wonderful” kind of laughter that the film genuinely earns. I keep forgetting that, for all his obsessions, Verhoeven is at heart an entertainer, and the comedy he uses here disarms us, opening us up to really listen to the message he wants to convey.
Going back to 1983’s “The Fourth Man,” faith and religion have been recurring themes in Verhoeven’s work. He even wrote a 2007 book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” which focused on Christ’s moral tenets and how others have manipulated them over the past 20 centuries. Though still an atheist, Verhoeven displays a fascination with genuine faith that gives the film much-needed emotional underpinnings even when its nuttier moments threaten to send the film off the rails. “Benedetta” returns Verhoeven to top form as he skillfully blends his brand of provocative eroticism with unexpected hilarity to create the most improbably entertaining movie of 2021.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Paul Verhoeven returns in top form as he skillfully blends his brand of provocative eroticism with unexpected hilarity to create the most improbably entertaining movie of 2021.
THE BAD – The tonal tightrope that the film must navigate causes a few slips at times, with several of the story’s more outlandish elements registering as mere shocks for shock’s sake.
THE FINAL SCORE – 8/10