Paul Verhoeven, no stranger to controversy, is back and taking on the Catholic Church with his new film Benedetta. It tells the story of 17th-century Italian nun and mystic Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), known today for experiencing visions and stigmata. More notoriously, a church investigation revealed not only the fraudulence of her religious claims, but also her affair with another nun. The film is loosely based on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 nonfiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Verhoeven’s take on the story is characteristically violent, erotic, and unapologetically shocking, but it also finds relevant social commentary in this history.
As a child, Benedetta is praised for her closeness to God and the Virgin Mary, and her family delivers her to a convent when she’s only nine years old. But she finds the divine less reachable there than before, as the nuns negotiate a “bride price” from her wealthy family and her beloved Mary statuette is taken from her. She quickly learns that obedience and silence rule in this place. As Benedetta grows older and begins experiencing her visions, Verhoeven uses each sequence to comment on the place of women in early modern (and contemporary) society. Her first vision comes when she’s part of a play. In the midst of performing the role of Mary, she sees Jesus appear and tell her she is to be his wife. Another vision casts Jesus as a highway robber from her childhood memories. Each vision places Benedetta in one of a woman’s ever-fluctuating roles — mother, wife, victim.
The film’s attention turns to the flesh when Benedetta meets Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who begs for admission to the convent to escape the violence she experiences in the outside world. With Bartolomea comes confusion, lust, longing, and perhaps love. Verhoeven has never shied away from the human body in his work, and here the female form is elevated as a pinnacle of suffering and pleasure. Benedetta has spent her life longing for God, but through stolen touches and veiled glimpses at Bartolomea’s nude figure, a different longing manifests. Her next vision is of Jesus on the cross, and now the supposedly universal embodiment of suffering holds an unexpected personal truth: Benedetta removes his loincloth to reveal a vulva.
Verhoeven shows little interest in judging whether these visions are real or imagined, and instead allows this personal mythos to stand next to the Church’s, with both equally poised for criticism. Claiming to speak God’s will, Benedetta makes herself a holy authority. Eventually named abbess of the convent, she enjoys the rewards of the title — chiefly her own room which she can share with Bartolomea. But her agency is hard to untangle from the system she works within. Her ascent traces the power structure of the Church as a whole, and her successes are hers to keep only as long as they further their aims. When her “sapphism” is revealed, she is discarded. After a mythic rise, Benedetta’s downfall is completely of the flesh.
Benedetta is one in a lineage of Verheoven’s films that at first pass seem to offer nothing but the shameless spectacle of gratuitous violence and sex at the expense of coherence. The sci-fi action flicks RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) are so full of gleeful gore that they don’t seem to care whether audiences engage with their satires of authoritarianism and consumerism. Showgirls (1995), a glittery, nearly pornographic journey through Las Vegas, was almost universally panned upon release; its commentary on show business flew over the heads of critics and audiences alike, and it was declared to be not only trashy, but simply bad. Similarly, even though its mockery of blockbuster fascism is not subtle, many missed the point of Starship Troopers (1997) at the time. In this tradition, Benedetta toes the boundaries of camp with elements like visions of an inelegant, hackneyed Christ, and it draws laughter with multiple defecation jokes and crude sexual humor (see the much-discussed Virgin Mary dildo). The challenge is to embrace these base pleasures while also engaging with what’s underneath.
Verhoeven’s films tend to attract controversy around their shock value — the sex, the violence, the blasphemy. In the case of Benedetta, the core of the sensationalized story is actual history. Not only was Benedetta Carlini’s sex life real, it was but one of many known instances of sexual relations between nuns, going all the way back to the year 423. The darker side is likewise true; the violence Bartolomea and other female characters face can be difficult to watch, but it’s the same violence that thousands of queer people have suffered throughout history, often at the hands of the Church. Verhoeven can present a feast of lurid, blasphemous imagery because he has no fear of God, but it’s more than exploitation because he imbues it with wit and empathy.
Verhoeven also explores how women maneuver spaces not built for them, how they can be both agents and victims of their sexuality. He’s skilled at articulating the underlying ways power functions in various environments, and how women find ways to navigate them, whether it’s war in Flesh and Blood, Starship Troopers, and Black Book, the entertainment industry in Showgirls, or institutional religion here. What results are very honest looks, free of value judgment, at what it means to be a woman.
Ultimately, how one reacts to Benedetta is a mirror to how one reacts to our own world. Is it so shocking that a woman would make love to another woman? Is it automatically problematic just because a male director is telling the story? And the graphic violence that is objectionable on the screen — would we object in the same way to its real-life corollaries? And the corrupt powers that be who are unwilling to help as a plague ravages Italy — how would we respond to a hypothetical modern equivalent? Verhoeven’s work is neither safe nor comfortable. Yet for viewers willing to get past discomfort, his work offers the kind of brash social commentary that’s increasingly rare in mainstream film.
Benedetta is now playing in theaters and on demand.