There’s probably a sober biopic to be made about Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century nun who climbed her convent’s ranks after claiming to have been visited by Jesus, then fell hard after being caught in a scandalous sexual relationship with a fellow sister. But this definitely isn’t it. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the master provocateur who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Benedetta is a daring hybrid of historical horror and erotic thriller that pivots on a makeshift dildo fashioned from a wooden icon of the Virgin Mary. No wonder Catholic activists want it banned.
Though Benedetta is set in the Italian city of Pescia, Verhoeven tells the story in French, presumably because his 2016 revenge thriller Elle was especially well received in France. The veteran director sets out his stall in an early scene. Soon after being dispatched to the local convent by her father, who is relieved of a handsome dowry by its canny abbess (Charlotte Rampling), young Benedetta (Elena Plonka) is knocked down by a bulky sculpture of the Virgin Mary. She kisses the statue’s bare breast as it hits her, perhaps with a hint of lust, but emerges unscathed from the accident. It’s a lucky escape that some of her fellow nuns suggest could be a miracle. The little girl is definitely paying attention.
Fast forward to adulthood and Benedetta, now played by Virginie Efira, goes about her duties quietly until the convent welcomes a beautiful and less docile new recruit, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). As she wrestles with her sexual feelings for Bartolomea, Benedetta begins to have frequent visions of Jesus. When she wakes in the middle of the night with blood gushing from her palms and ankles – just like JC on the cross – her colleagues are convinced it’s a miracle and she supplants Rampling’s Sister Felicia as abbess. Crucially, she now has a private room where her relationship with Bartolomea can really bloom.
Benedetta‘s exploration of sex, power and corruption within the Catholic Church is tongue-in-cheek and rarely subtle: there’s more nudity than necessary here, but no more than you’d expect from this director. Given that Verhoeven has a proven eye for detail – Showgirls is a garishly beautiful movie that really illuminates its Vegas setting – this film’s cheap-looking CGI effects feel deliberate. The blood that oozes from Benedetta’s body is as red as a London bus, and it’s surely no coincidence that one of the schlockiest scenes involves Rampling, an actress who brings arthouse class to proceedings. For Verhoeven, tackiness and gravitas aren’t mutually exclusive.
But even when Benedetta is deliberately silly, it’s definitely not simplistic. By the end, it’s hard not to wonder who is more cynical: Benedetta for probably faking her stigmata and visions of Jesus, or Rampling’s abbess for running the convent like a small business when she has no real faith of her own. Of course, in the 17th century, this hallowed all-female environment would have been one of the few places where these enterprising women could display some agency. It all adds up to a film that’s brave, fascinating, grim and irreverent: in other words, vintage Verhoeven.
- Director: Paul Verhoeven
- Starring: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia
- Release date: April 15