Paul Verhoeven, you horny motherfucker, you’ve done it again.
Few filmmakers have made a name for themselves violently confronting the nigh-puritanical state of modern cinema the way Verhoeven has. His signature style is all about doing the most when it comes to depicitions of sex and violence, marrying gratuitous aesthetics to uncommon thoughtfulness. That approach has earned him a lot of success, even if it’s usually been delayed until long after his films premiere.
Verhoeven’s ’80s and ’90s stretch of big-budget Hollywood films are dazzling in retrospect. He made five films with uneven commercial and critical success — RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers — but almost all of them have since been reappraised and praised for the uncanny ways they blend uncompromised sociopolitical satire and genre convention.
The Paul Verhoeven of the 21st century has slowed his output and taken it outside Hollywood. Benedetta, his first film since 2016’s acclaimed thriller Elle, is perhaps the most openly provocative film of 2021, and maybe of Verhoeven’s filmography as well. Benedetta focuses on religious scandal and the sexual taboo of a lesbian affair in a convent. Provocative in every sense of the word, the movie is equally capable of drawing viewers in with its witty study of sexuality and faith, and turning them away with its unabashed titillation. In this film, as in many of Verhoeven’s previous works, those two opposing forces are very much the point.
The story is set in 17th-century Italy, where the nun Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has felt the touch of the supernatural in her life since childhood. A belief that God speaks to her has been continually reaffirmed by small miracles that spared her and her family in childhood, leading her family to commit her life to God and send her to a convent. When she comes of age, her daily life in the convent is upended by the arrival of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), as they begin a secret love affair. At about the same time, her visions take an erotic turn, and her sexual awakening is entangled in a spiritual one.
When Benedetta begins to exhibit stigmata and speak with the voice of God, her status in the convent rapidly rises, threatening the authority of the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) in charge of the convent — who also suspects Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair. As Benedetta’s power grows within the convent, some see her as a saint, the only thing keeping the plague away from their villa. Others suspect her visions are lies. No one really knows about their sexual nature, but the convent is a political place — Benedetta desiring power is sinful enough, and if she isn’t telling the truth, she may be guilty of more.
Based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Bowen, Benedetta is a dizzying genre hybrid. It’s presented at times with the severity and airs of a historical drama, but injected with the mean wit of a black comedy, and all wrapped in an erotic thriller. It delights in acts of blasphemy, constantly juxtaposing the sacred and the profane: a dildo carved from a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a vision of Christ crucified and commanding Benedetta to strip, naked bodies writhing in pleasure in holy places, where they are later sexually tortured.
In these juxtapositions, Benedetta’s provocations bare their teeth: If the sisters of the convent are married to Christ in word, why not in deed? Are carnal and spiritual desire that different? Verhoeven poses many questions in Benedetta, and offers few answers. Like the Bible that the early Catholic church claimed its authority from but kept the common people from reading, the film supports endless interpretation, and courts easy rejection.
Some may find Benedetta too exploitative to take seriously. That criticism has its merits: The movie’s lasciviousness can be read as being meant for the camera as much as it is for the characters. Its queerness can come across as something purely meant to titillate straight men. But in the context of the rigid confines of Catholicism at the peak of its powers, Verhoeven’s argument for Benedetta’s extremes is compelling. He presses the sacred against the profane, and brings the religious denial of the human experience into question.
Throughout Benedetta, God is just a cover, and few are actually protected when He’s invoked. The convent claims it does the Lord’s work, but it only accepts girls whose families can pay a “dowry.” A papal ambassador arrives in town, but brings the plague with him. And as Benedetta begins to assert her sainthood, Bartolomea becomes disposable to her. When desire is denied and hidden behind euphemism, it cannot be understood, Verhoeven suggests, and unexamined desire can become thoughtless consumption.
In some forms of Christianity, the ultimate sin is blasphemy — words or deeds that demonstrate contempt for God, or a desire to desecrate what is holy. It’s also a convenient sin, a flexible charge that can be levied against any opponent of the religious order in question. In the Church’s eyes, a blasphemer’s very contemplation of the act they’re accused of could be seen as a shock and affront to the status quo. That sets up a scenario where the faithful can feel they shouldn’t even attempt to understand the accused and their beliefs, lest they find themselves on the road to blasphemy as well.
This is ultimately Verhoeven’s wickedest trick in Benedetta, a film that gleefully dares viewers to find it blasphemous, an affront to some sensibility or another. It bears the stigma of smut because on one level it is, an irreverent and mischievous work that aims to shock you with its prurience — but it’s also about that shock as another system of control. Like RoboCop’s violent deconstruction of how capitalism deforms cities and Starship Troopers’ brutal takedown of war as a mechanism for fostering a more fascist culture, Benedetta can be read as a cinematic tract against a culture of repression, where the collective denial of the range of human sexuality in the name of sainthood is just another way to create more terrible sinners in secret.
Benedetta opens in theaters on Dec. 3, and will be available for digital rental on Dec. 21.