Benedetta delivers what it promises — an erotic lesbian nun story that questions the nature of religious power and the institutions that control it. It’s hardly transgressive at this point to question Catholicism, or show two women falling in love in a sacred setting. Nunsploitation is an evergreen genre, effective because of its inherent contradictions but also constrained by the fact that nobody will ever beat The Devils. Honestly, it seems a bit surprising it has taken Paul Verhoeven this long to make a film like this, given his penchant for dark, comedic and graphic explorations of power. In many ways, it feels every bit a film made by an 83-year-old director who still holds social grudges that felt relevant in the earlier days of his career. People in power abuse it. The Church, as a political body, is a sham. Get what you can get and get out.
That’s not a knock on Verhoeven, who has managed to make a pretty entertaining, if straightforward, entry in the nunspolitation canon. It’s as graphic as you’d like and funny in ways you probably aren’t expecting.
Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) is a nun serving in a small village in Tuscany. We meet her as a little girl en route to be given to the abbey. Her family is stopped on the road by a group of bandits who attempt to steal from her mother. Benedetta, unafraid, threatens them with the wrath of god. Lo and behold, something happens. A small but noticeable miracle. Was she the one who caused it? Later, the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) barters with Giuliano (David Clavel), Benedetta’s father, over the cost of the dowry for Benedetta’s admission. Is there any purity to faith and piousness, or is it all pretense?
Years later, Bendetta has established herself at the monastery. She experiences visions of Christ, particularly in moments of physical longing. She continues to perform miracles of a sort. She gains a following. Eventually she ascends to a place of power — which, in turn, makes her enemies. At the same time, she rescues Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a beautiful young street rat who begs Benedetta for safety. She starts to feel warm towards the mischievous Barolomea. They start an affair.
The script, by David Birke and Verhoeven, isn’t especially subtle about any of its commentary on the bullshit design of religious institutions and the types of power-hungry men (and women) who run them. There’s even a disgusting Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who mostly fits into the archetype. As a pseudo-biopic, the story is set in the 1700s, and they use the concurrent Black Plague as a pretty overt metaphor. A plague of biblical proportions and a woman who claims to be the wife of Christ — it’s too good not to embrace.
Still, despite its lack of surprises in the story, Verhoeven’s film is consistently hysterical, even downright goofy in parts. Benedetta’s dreams, when visually depicted, are too hysterical to spoil here. The way Verhoeven uses sound for at times literal potty humor is more shocking than anything to do with a corrupt papacy. Efira is great in the title role, playing a character whose divinity we believe in because her character believes it, even if all the evidence is there that she’s a sham. So what if she is? Everyone else happens to be, too, but at least she’s fun to watch.
This isn’t quite the exceptional, shocking piece of art audiences were expecting from Verhoeven after his return to prominence with Elle in 2016, but it’s an entertaining one nonetheless. It gets the job done, even if it’s one to which we’ve already memorized the blueprints.