Benedetta (2021)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven; Written by David Birke and Paul Verhoeven

You ever daydream about himbo Jesus? Fantasize about getting off with the Virgin Mary? Tried to picture Charlotte Rampling covered in black boils? Rejoice! 

Paul Verhoeven, the cad, is 83 years old, and yet somehow the last standing bastion of salacious cinema and the last big-name director devoted to peddling flesh on the big screen. In a Marvel/Disney-fied universe where the tights stay on lest we should see what Thor’s hammer can really accomplish, the simple act of preserving human sexuality in cinema shouldn’t be the radical act that it is. But here we are. Concerned evangelical mothers won the culture wars. 

But we can celebrate Benedetta for now, Verhoeven’s scandalous (based on real events) story about a 17th century nun who not only engages in immoral lesbian acts, but also claims a direct connection with God, upending a small-town convent and stirring the hornet’s nest that is organized religion. Replete with politics, mind games, sinful machinations and a lot of nudity, it’s vintage Verhoeven in his iconoclast attitude towards institutions, bite-your-nail satire and general distaste for good taste. 

Visually, Benedetta doesn’t see Verhoeven at his most adventurous or striking, and he’s frankly a bit of a pig still, a viewpoint he’ll be the first to own, I imagine, as he films Virginie Efira and Daphne Batakia as the two entangled nun lovers who twist themselves around each other and make a point of being naked in the otherwise prim convent. 

For the acolytes of the Church of Latter Day Verhoeven Academics, there’s plenty to ponder, as beneath the skin(peddling) there’s a paper to be written about the female body and its sexuality, and society’s bipolar attitude to its status as both sinful and sacred, as in how one is okay when it’s in service of bearing children, while the other is a literal one-way ticket to hell. A discussion that weaves neatly into Verhoeven’s other preoccupation in Benedetta, the question of when the ends justify the means. 

Because Benedetta’s sex life is secondary to her miracles, as she spontaneously suffers the stigmata, survives with miraculous luck near-death experiences, and communciates directly with the lord above. Can it really be true? And if not, might it still be okay if she puts her privileges place to good use? 

Benedetta is a fun film for anyone who’s tired of bloodless historical dramas that take themselves and their stories far too seriously. Anguished expressions, handwringing, moralizing is thrown out in favor of tirades, devilish grins, and lust for power and each other – who says no? 

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