Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Virginie Efira, Louise Chevillotte
There are notable collisions within Paul Verhoeven’s inevitably scandalous Benedetta. In the spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Walerian Borowczyk and a veritable army of others, Verhoeven resurrects the beleaguered spirit of the ’70s Euro nunsploitation picture. The sacred and profane assault one another. But there are other collisions and interplays wrestling in the midst of this giddily entertaining film. Love and sadism. Male and female. Piety and blasphemy. Truth and fiction. Lust and divinity. As each makes its strike the sparks fly.
Pasolini was a gay atheist but he made a number of films that seemed to earnestly, faithfully depict deeply religious dogma (I’d make a case for The Gospel According to Matthew being his masterpiece). Yet Pasolini also pushed buttons, entwining faith with sexuality in ways that tested and triggered his audiences. Verhoeven’s reputation as a provocateur places him in a perfect space to carry on in this nervy tradition.
Like Pasolini, Verhoeven tells his story in earnest. At least, at first. Formally, Benedetta looks like it could be a Pasolini or Borowczyk production. He entertains wide, flat-ish establishing shots, especially for exterior locations. Staging and blocking is unpretentious. There’s a sense of efficiency in the way the film flows, cataloguing events.
His subject is the ‘true’ (that tricky word again) story of the novice nun Benedetta (a flawless Virginie Efira), sold to a convent in Tuscany as a child, already God fearing and pious. Eighteen years later, she begins to receive visitations from Christ, and bears the wounds of the crucifixion as stigmata. Saintly experiences that garner as much doubt as praise. These seeming miracles coincide with the arrival of a young woman named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia); rescued by Benedetta from a cruel father and wantonly aroused by her saviour. As Benedetta’s holy revelations intensify, so too does her complicated relationship with Bartolomea – at times sadistic, at others erotic. Watching and doubting her are Abbess Felicita (nobody scours like Charlotte Rampling) and her daughter Christina (Louise Chevilotte).
Perhaps the film’s masterstroke is it’s ability to play both sides of the argument with a rascal’s slipperiness. You can view Benedetta’s stigmata and visitations as legitimate, or you can take the cynic’s perspective that she is wildly manipulating her circumstances as a kind of power play.. Benedetta skirts didacticism, and even makes room for the argument that, say she is mad or even simply lying, might such madness or lies themselves be the method of Christ’s communication? This conflation of religious faith and madness might understandably ruffle feathers, so too the ever-present sense that creed is used primarily for self-justification. What’s questioned then is what constitutes piety? What is ‘good’ faith?
Benedetta has no qualms observing corruption and hypocrisy within the Catholic church. Little asides here and there. But this element of the conversation becomes wholly embodied by Lambert Wilson in the film’s second half; an emissary from Florence whose intercedence at the convent coincides with the encroachment of the Black Death that’s sweeping the continent. Wilson’s Nuncio brings with him another scourge; the scourge of patriarchal violence, and it is here that Verhoeven wades into the nastier side of the nunsploitation cycle; it’s enthusiasm for torture and punishment.
Verhoeven is having wild fun throughout this enterprise, and the enthusiasm is contagious. With quality performances across the board he has his audience captive, and starts playing the kind of wild games we haven’t seen from him in a short while. Visions of snakes and swordfights are gleefully OTT, while the nighttime adventures of Benedetta and Bartolomea aren’t so much subtle ruminations on intimacy between women as saucy and knowing attempts to garner reaction. I never quite realised the phallic potential of the Virgin Mary before…
So that initial sense of austerity slips some, but the film’s sinful side is a riot. Benedetta starts playing in the arenas of gothic horror and melodrama bordering on camp. When a comet casts the night sky in delicious shades of burgundy, the film feels spiritually connected to both iterations of Suspiria, finding resonance with Argento’s hysteria and Guadagnino’s funereal sense of Grand Guignol.
The decision to release Benedetta in time for Easter weekend probably sounded like a fittingly playful move from it’s UK distributor MUBI, but the reality is that a controversial arthouse film is likely to struggle finding screens, especially with broader competition playing at the same time. This is a shame, as for all it’s salacious intent, Verhoeven’s film plays welcomingly for all-comers. It’s a continuation of the intelligent, adult-orientated cinema many have been begging to see make a return to the public consciousness. Indeed, over the last 12-18 months there’s been a welcome rise in 18 certificate movies appearing that play refreshingly for grown-ups. The problem, it appears, is a lack of faith from mainstream venues, who are unwilling to trust that the audience for them is there.