Paul Verhoeven returns to doing what he does best in this historical drama packed to the rafters with arthouse exploitation. Based on the life of 17th century nun Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) who enters into a relationship with fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), Benedetta has all the religious symbolism, violence and nudity that we have come to expect from the Dutch master.
As a child, Benedetta is taken to the Convent of the Mother of God to take orders, stopping briefly to pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary, with whom the young Benedetta claims to be in direct communication. When a group of soldiers arrive and attempt to rob her parents, Benedetta warns them that the Virgin will punish them for their misdeeds. Benedetta’s prayer, it seems, is answered by a bird flying out of a nearby tree to defecate in the commander’s eye.
Starting as he means to go on, this combination of the profane and the divine amply presages the film’s ensuing 130 minutes. Although Benedetta suggests that the many visions and miracles that its heroine is party to may be fraudulent, it is largely uninterested in whether they are. Verhoeven is instead concerned with demolishing the boundaries between piety and profanity; in finding the eschatological among the scatological; the revelatory among the masturbatory.
The onscreen result, naturally, is generous helpings of female nudity, lesbian sex, violence and a third act cameo from our old friend, bubonic plague. It’s all pure Verhoeven, a filmmaker who has always traded in filth, here rendered figuratively and literally. While certainly gratuitous, toning it down would do a disservice to its ideas as well as the base pleasure of its imagery. Indeed, rooted in exploitation, Verhoeven presents a complicated understanding of the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze. This is explicitly alluded to with a peep hole used by the recently deposed Soeur Felicita, abbess of the convent (a viperous Charlotte Rampling) to spy on Benedetta and Bartolomea using a modified statuette of the virgin Mary as a dildo. Later, Verhoeven further complicates our relationship to this imagery with a mercifully brief torture scene that grossly inverts the earlier sequence.
Benedetta is not Verhoeven’s best work, but it is perhaps among the best in representing his central concerns as a filmmaker. Its exploitation is balanced with a reframing of religious experience as fundamentally sexual, and which suggests that love and sex cannot be untangled. Its depiction of societal misogyny goes beyond finger-wagging disapproval of religion to instead interrogate how female pleasure is corralled, policed and inverted as a tool for controlling women.
Benedetta has its cake and eats it, with gratuitous nudity and violence offered up to the audience as a base feast for the eyes. Yet in this indulgence, Benedetta eschews simplistic moralising in favour of a complex vision of female sexuality that is as problematic as it is compelling.