In 1971, Ken Russell made a controversial masterpiece called The Devils, a film that has still never been released uncut in the United States. It was taboo largely due to its depiction of sex-crazed nuns humping Jesus statues and starting demonic orgies while masturbating priests watched. Fifty years later, Paul Verhoeven, the director that brought us such classics as RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), brought us a lesbian nun story that starts off a little like his hyper-sexual flop, Showgirls, but the mood of The Devils is right around the corner. Verhoeven said, “I refuse to be afraid of provocation.” Anyone who has seen his films might reply, “Duh.” But if there has ever been a Verhoeven film to warrant such a statement, it is 2021’s Benedetta.
Don’t you hate it when people tell you to watch something and then qualify it by saying “If you can just get through the first half, it gets really good!” Well, Benedetta loosely falls into that category. The difference, however, is how the last half makes the first half better in retrospect. The first half isn’t boring, it’s just that Verhoeven is doing more of his over-the-top presentation, which, unfortunately, does not always work in context. If anything, it undermines the very real narrative and subtext on display. For example, a nun carves a dildo out of a wooden Saint Mary statue. The purpose is to explore the repressed protagonist’s sexuality. However, the lengths to which Verhoeven takes it are comical and feel absurd — not in a funny way, but rather in a way that might make you slightly roll your eyes and say, “Oh, god.” Something like this is a bizarre juxtaposition with the film’s latter half, which eventually finds a level of seriousness to which it’s easy to gravitate and connect.
The eventual and ultimate success of Benedetta is due in large part to Virginie Efira’s performance as Benedetta. Efira is not afraid to go to the lengths Verhoeven asks of her, and this level of dedication shines through all of the hyperactive storytelling to present something grounded. The ridiculous aspects of the first half, albeit intentionally over the top, still examine Benedetta’s sexuality and force her to realize her identity, which does not match the person she perceives herself to be. She struggles with silent questions like, “Can I love God and love a woman? She struggles with her spirituality to the extent that she becomes her spirituality. There are multiple points throughout the film where Benedetta experiences stigmata — which, in Christianity, is the manifestation of bodily wounds that correspond with the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as scarring and pain in the hands, wrists and feet. But there is another scene when Benedetta is seemingly possessed by God himself, calling out the zealous charlatans and Pharisees around her. It is as if Benedetta is the God she serves.
All of this is exacerbated by Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), the new nun who tempts our beloved Benedetta. Bartolomea is a wild child, divorced from the time’s taboos and conventions and living the life she wants and no other. Joining the convent is merely a way to escape her father’s perpetual abuse. Bartolomea doesn’t care about God. She doesn’t care about her fellow sisters of the cloth. Nor does she care about anything other than the woman who takes care of her in the convent, Benedetta. Their first bonding moment takes place in a bathroom late at night, both of them sitting over holes of a trough-like toilet system as Bartolomea defecates loudly, farts and all. This behavior is straight out of a comedy, but the scene is intended as something far more serious and meaningful. Patakia plays the role very well, demonstrating a level of dedication equal to Efira. But the writing and Verhoeven’s vision fight one another at times, and it can result in characters feeling phony and laughable. Bartolomea is responsible for numerous such disruptive clashes of tone early on, but she evens out into a character with real power.
Meanwhile, Charlotte Rampling offers the film’s best performance, displaying such reserve and strength as Soeur Felicita, the traditionalist abbess. Felicita follows structures put in place by the church, and she is stern, as an abbess is expected to be. This adds a wonderfully polarizing attribute to Benedetta, as Felicita and Benedetta are opposites in many ways. Benedetta gradually becomes the zealous and progressive one, and Felicita reprimands her for this behavior … until she can’t.
Despite moments in which Verhoeven’s vision and results feel out of step, Benedetta comes together by the third act — more powerfully than expected and with an awe-striking effect. Similar to The Devils, Verhoeven turns a seemingly immature and senselessly disturbing picture into a powerful criticism of religion and women’s struggle for power in a male-dominated world. It’s hard to overlook how the first half undermines this by trying too hard to avoid prudish self-censorship and exploiting the film’s lesbian aspects. But Benedetta hooks you by the end.
From a technical perspective, the film is beautiful — thanks in part to cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie. Anne Dudley’s music is sparse but fitting. The lighting is notable in many scenes as well, drawing you into the darkness of the 17th century (and Judith C. Brown’s source material, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, must be a fascinating read).
Benedetta is great fun. It is not as harrowing as The Devils, despite its similarities, but its ending is arguably more thought-provoking. It asks whether it is better to live a life of solitude and “sin” in order to fulfill your true self or to return to your past life, oppressed but protected by God, to save the masses. This is Benedetta’s struggle. Whether someone is deeply devout or staunchly atheist, it’s a notable battle that rages in Benedetta and the film that bears her name.