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Review: Paul Verhoeven's Wickedly Funny 'Benedetta' Kicks Back Against a New Wave of Puritanism

By Caspar Salmon | Film | July 14, 2021 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | July 14, 2021 |


Telling the true story of a lesbian Italian nun from the Middle Ages who had visions of Jesus, Benedetta is brought to the screen, naturally enough, by Paul Verhoeven, the director of Showgirls. Like that film, Benedetta features a libidinous main character of almost crazed ambition arriving in a new environment and making it work for her. Unlike Showgirls, Benedetta also works as a critique of patriarchal organized religion, and Catholicism in particular, as it fetishizes and imprisons the bodies of women.

An actor of immense self-possession, Virginie Efira appears at first to be an unlikely fit for the sexually voracious, often unhinged Benedetta Carlini. This young becomes besotted with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) a new, rough-mannered novice. As Benedetta embarks on an illicit sexual liaison with Bartolomea, she also starts to have more and more visions, which convince many of her order that she is miraculous. The convent’s Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling) is rather less convinced, especially when Benedetta begins to challenge her for the top job.

There is a lot — a LOT — going on in Paul Verhoeven’s new film, which at various points features a sexy Jesus killing snakes with a sword, a pregnant woman squirting breastmilk in front of a cardinal, a showman setting fire to his farts, and a dildo whittled from a crucifix. The film presents a serious consideration of the place of women in our society, which trains a critical eye on fathers selling off their daughters to a convent and on various men contriving to beat women into submission. At the same time, it is also a hilarious, wicked comedy of manners with a veritable host of barbed zingers. Of which Charlotte Rampling’s withering “No miracle ever occurs in a bed, believe me” was this reviewer’s favorite.

Finally, the film operates as a gleeful challenge to good taste. Benedetta’s visions are absurdly tacky and telenovela-like. The purple sky above the convent when a comet visits the small town looks gaudy as all get out. All of the nuns, screamingly, wear a full face of make-up (!) under their wimples. Benedetta is a rollercoaster ride of a movie, whose merry audacity is a tonic to the spirit. (Religious people may think otherwise. Full disclosure: this writer is a godless heathen.)

Once Benedetta has assumed leadership of the convent, the plot kicks into action. The previous incumbent takes the case of Benedetta’s blasphemy and sexual infractions to Rome, in order to see the nun deposed. This is where Verhoeven is at his most coruscating. Once again, after Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls and Isabelle Huppert in Elle, we find ourselves cheering on somebody—whose morality is profoundly suspect—because the odds are so stacked against them. It helps that Virginie Efira gives her whole heart and soul to this character. With her inscrutable face never betraying any signs of her motives and her body devoted to showing somebody’s impulses taking over, she portrays somebody whose self-belief is total, and whose rebellion is clearly dangerous. Most extraordinary is the voice that Efira conjures up, a great big growl from the deep, when challenging authority and embodying (or faking) the voice of God himself. Charlotte Rampling offers a cool counterpoint to this performance, giving us a Mother Superior who has been politically astute, but then realizes how her status can never shield her from the power-grabbing of men.

Benedetta’s pleasures are too many to list, and it would spoil the joy of the film to describe its most potent scenes in too much detail. But at a time when a great wave of puritanism appears to be taking hold of cinema, and too many filmmakers seem to be hobbled by codified good manners, this gutsy, preposterous, wickedly fun film offers a great coursing pleasure to the mind and senses.

Bendetta made its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

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