This review of “Benedetta” first published on July 9, following its screening at Cannes 2021.
Some see the whole world in a grain of sand; Paul Verhoeven, with typical abundance, expands that old dictum, swapping a measly pebble for a whole damn convent. And so it is with his long-awaited “Benedetta,” which premiered in July at the Cannes Film Festival two years later than initially expected. In this two-hour film, within these four walls, the Dutch provocateur has managed to encompass all the themes and obsessions that have marked his five-decade, three-language career.
You can’t call a film as lurid and alive as “Benedetta” a closing statement, but there is something valedictory about the erotic religious drama, which finds time to explore questions of voyeurism, sadism, masochism, systems of power, perversion, repression, rebellion, storytelling, divinity, irony and belief. Oh, and sex — plenty and plenty of nun-on-nun sex.
Set in plague-ravaged Tuscany (doesn’t that sound familiar?) in the 17th century, the film follows the very real figure of Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), a daughter of wealth betrothed to a hillside convent, who claimed to speak directly with Jesus. Verhoeven depicts the many visions as only he could: Jesus has perfect skin and carries a three-feet sword that he uses on man and animal, painting the screen red with as much arterial spray as possible.
Into the convent comes Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a farmer girl whose entry into the elitist space — things were different back then! — is funded by Benedetta’s parents. “A present for you,” they tell their blessed daughter. Implicit in those words is another of the film’s main obsessions — the power of the market in all aspects of life.
There are plenty of skeptics milling about, holy sisters who simply do not believe in Benedetta’s beatitude, never failing to mention that all her stigmata appear self-inflected and her prophecies invariably self-serving. Problem is, they don’t only serve one person. And as the convent’s Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling) soon learns, having a pet saint is awfully good for contributions and pilgrimages. Before Saint Francis, the ambitious male authority reminds her, the town of Assisi was a sleepy backwater too.
Because it’s so good for business, Benedetta’s reputation and stature continues to grow. Soon enough she’s offered the role of Mother Superior herself — along with the spacious living quarters where she and Bartolomea can consummate their shared attraction. Verhoeven obviously takes immense pleasure shooting and blocking the pair’s many love scenes, but then pleasure is what “Benedetta” is about.
“Your worst enemy is your body,” Benedetta is told upon entering the convent. “Better to not feel too at home in it.” For what then follows, Benedetta uses her new privileged perch to unlearn those lessons. And for all the pleasure the director takes shooting certain body parts, Verhoeven tries to celebrate the human body in all its functions and forms.
To wit: Benedetta and Bartolomea meet cute while both are, um, relieving themselves late one night. Their eyes meet, and faces come near while the music of the gastrointestinal system overtakes the soundtrack.
Is such a scene supposed to be serious? Well, of course not! At the same time, like artist Chris Ofili’s controversial cow-dung painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” “Benedetta” is a film that argues that the sacred can and should be found in the vulgar and profane. Because who the hell decided what’s sacred and what’s not? When the two lovers are put on trial later in the film, Bartolomea is unable to “confess” because for her, the act of feeling and sharing pleasure is in no way a sin.
In that sense, the film serves as a roundabout statement on Verhoeven’s whole career. Because once you follow a certain logic — where the characters must unlearn that suffering is the only way to redemption — all the way through, “Benedetta” can be viewed as an argument for the beauty and value of cheap thrills.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the lead character. Though Verhoeven plays with a certain ambiguity about whether Benedetta is for real or just another charlatan, in the end that’s just a narrative feint, a red herring hiding the real truth — that Benedetta is an avatar for the director himself.
What does it matter if her wounds are self-inflicted when she believes with full faith that the Good Lord forced her hand? In that sense, she is neither sinner nor saint but a simple storyteller, a headstrong fool convinced of her own tale who uses charisma and grace and whatever tools are at her disposal to reshape and make her mark on the wider world. Surprising as it may be for a film that spends an inordinate amount of time centered on a holy relic carved into a dildo, but “Benedetta” is Paul Verhoeven’s most personal film.