Ever since rumblings of its pre-production first emerged around 2017, Benedetta has been the Paul Verhoeven Lesbian-Nun Movie. Those words – Verhoeven, lesbians, nuns – were all that most prospective viewers needed to know about the film, which was then going by the working title of Blessed Virgin. Before a single scene had been shot, many cinephiles had already decided whether they would be avoiding the film like the Black Death or eagerly lining up for whatever trashy excess the acclaimed Dutch filmmaker had dreamed up. This was the man who gave the world Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), after all. Or The 4th Man (1983) and Flesh + Blood (1985), if you wanted to be a hipster about it.
Verhoeven, however, has a habit of upending expectations. Even in his current late-career phase, when the gleefully caustic impulses of his Hollywood years have mellowed somewhat, his works never turn out to be exactly what one would anticipate based on their provocative loglines. Whatever deliciously salacious feature viewers might have envisioned, Benedetta is not that film. There is, to be sure, plenty of frank female nudity in the film, and a generous helping of nun-on-nun action. However, Benedetta isn’t really an erotic film – rather, it is film about the erotic, and its relationship to the sacred. Weirdly enough, it might be Verhoeven’s most sincere film in decades, going back to the more mainstream Dutch World War II dramas he was making in the 1970s (All Things Pass, Soldier of Orange).
Verhoeven and fellow Elle (2016) screenwriter David Birke – who also penned, of all things, the utterly wretched horror film Slender Man (2018) – loosely adapted Benedetta from a nonfiction book by historian Judith C. Brown. The tale concerns one Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century nun who allegedly had mystical visions, spoke prophecies, and exhibited stigmata. Benedetta became something of a local sensation in Tuscany, where she was elected abbess of her convent at the tender age of 29. However, she was eventually discredited by ecclesiastical authorities, who accused her of blasphemy and sexual deviancy. Benedetta’s story ended less tragically than that of Joan of Arc, but as France’s most famous martyr showed so dramatically two centuries prior, infidels and apostates are far less threatening to organized religion than a heterodox true believer. And nothing is so dangerous to patriarchal organized religion as a pious, unshakeable woman who envisions a more loving world – a world where men no longer hold all the power.
As a child, Benedetta (Elena Plonka) already seems destined for a life of religious devotion, a fate confirmed by an incident in which an allegedly Virgin-sent nightingale prompts a band of highwaymen to call off their robbery of the girl’s wealthy family. Benedetta is soon admitted to a semi-autonomous convent in the village of Pescia – after a sizable donation of gold and trade goods from her father, of course. (Even Brides of Christ, it seems, must have a dowry, one of the film’s many nods to the muddled relationship between power, money, and faith.) The girl’s wide-eyed piety catches the attention of the abbess, Mother Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), and the other sisters, particularly after a statue of the Virgin abruptly topples onto Benedetta during prayer, leaving her miraculously unharmed.
Fast-forward 18 years and Benedetta – now played by Virginie Efira, stunningly beatific and yet faintly inscrutable – is living a life of religious contentment. The nuns are not cloistered, and whether due to her beauty, fidelity, or wealth (probably all three), Benedetta seems to be well-known and -loved in the local village. While performing the lead role in a liturgical play, she experiences a strikingly lucid vision of Christ as a loving shepherd, a revelation that prompts her feet to twitch in childlike delight. (Or orgasmic ecstasy, perhaps.) This foreshadows the more dramatic upheavals to come, which are catalyzed when a peasant named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) seeks sanctuary in the convent. The soft-hearted Benedetta persuades her father to pay the young woman’s dowry so that she can escape her abusive home life, but the nun may also have other, less holy motives. The bold and reckless Bartolomea quickly disarms her, and before you can say “the love that dare not speak its name,” the pair are ogling each other when the habits come off and dabbling in surreptitious fondling during choral worship.
Benedetta is confused by the strange new feelings that Bartolomea elicits, and briefly overcompensates with sanctimonious resentment, punishing the novitiate cruelly and publicly. Soon, however, Benedetta’s religious visions become more frequent and violent, and Bartolomea is assigned as her bedside caretaker, giving the two women plenty of alone time. Things escalate quickly from there, as Benedetta manifests continually bleeding stigmata and begins bellowing wrathful pronouncements in male-sounding voice. Most of the nuns are awed by these apparent miracles, as is the convent’s confessor, Father Ricordati (Hervé Pierre). Meanwhile, the village provost, Alfonso Cecchi (Oliveri Rabourdin), is already mentally calculating the wealth and prestige that an influx of pilgrims would bring.
The abbess is more skeptical, however, as is her daughter, Sister Christina (Louis Chevillotte). The latter skulks around watching Benedetta suspiciously, and she objects vociferously when the local religious authorities unexpectedly hand her mother’s title to the young woman. (An intriguing wrinkle to the tidy feminist narrative there: Benedetta’s ascension depends on the male priesthood disregarding the convent’s process for electing its own leader.) Soon all of Tuscany is enamored with this newly elevated prophetess, but it’s just a matter of time before the patriarchal hammer comes down on Benedetta. Nothing panics the Holy See – here embodied in a papal nuncio played by Lambert Wilson in a full how-dare-this-woman snit – like an implicit challenge to their absolute authority. Alarmingly, Benedetta has both the adoration of the common folk and a liberated (if ambiguous) personal theology that whorls together erotic, platonic, and universal love. Even more alarmingly, the clerical hierarchy seems beside the point in her radical, millennialist vision for the future.
By tightly entwining Benedetta’s sexual awakening with the emergence of her mystical and temporal power, Verhoeven and Birke’s screenplay cunningly complicates what could have been a saucier, more straightforward tale of forbidden passion and inevitable repressive backlash. Although they take plenty of liberties with Brown’s source material, the most crucial aspect of their adaptation is one that reflects a frustrating reality for historians: The truth of Benedetta’s story is simply impossible to discern with 100% certainty. Accordingly, the filmmakers play coy with what precisely is going on behind the convent’s closed doors. It’s almost as if Verhoeven is tweaking the viewer: He offers titillating scenes of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s sexual encounters but never shows, for example, the moment when the former woman’s stigmata first manifest. As the abbess sagely observes, perhaps she inflicted the wounds herself? Signs and wonders abound – a scarlet comet appears in the night sky, a prophesied plague ravages the countryside, and a seemingly dead woman is resurrected – but all these events have possible mundane explanations.
Bartolomea appears to regard the whole thing as a self-serving con – one she’s entirely on board with once she gets a taste of the abbess’ luxurious bedchamber – but Benedetta herself is an enigma. As portrayed by Efira, she at least seems unfailingly earnest in her faith, simultaneously mortally terrified and overflowing with holy conviction. Verhoeven leaves plenty of wiggle room in the film, however, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about what the hell is going on. This is, in a sense, the The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) of lesbian-nun movies – albeit far more theologically and epistemologically complex than that comparison implies. Even the heavenly visions that the viewer witnesses firsthand are not conclusive. They might be the reveries of a holy messenger, but they could also be the hallucinations of a madwoman. Or perhaps we are only seeing punched-up dramatizations of the falsehoods that Benedetta is spinning for her worshipful devotees? There are no simple binaries here, which is fitting for a story in which the heroine seems equally aroused by the alluringly boyish Bartolomea and by the model-handsome but sexless Christ that haunts her visions.
Benedetta plainly wants the viewer to ponder the impossibility of discerning other people’s motives – and, by extension, the inscrutability of a God who speaks through the words and actions of Her faithful. If anything, the film suffers somewhat by obviously striving to be a kind of freewheeling philosophical thought experiment. As shocking and visceral as the film’s on-screen action can be – in addition to all the fingering, cunnilingus, and masturbation, there’s a scene in which a naked woman is tortured with the infamous pear of anguish – there’s still a whiff of stuffy sophistry to the whole enterprise. It’s a movie that seems designed for post-screening discussions about the search for truth and the status of women in Renaissance Europe. When combined with the flatness of the digital photography, the Syfy Original-worthy CGI gore, and the direct-to-streaming-level production values, this gives Benedetta an unfortunately chintzy pall. Verhoeven and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie strive to make it all look handsome, but the unconvincing cheapness of the production is still apparent. The studio could evidently afford atmosphere, but not historical verisimilitude.
The result is a film that is simultaneously very horny and somewhat bland. Benedetta is not shy about sex – the love scenes are appropriately steamy without being particularly graphic – but the filmmakers are more interested in the story’s intellectual dimensions than in its carnal aspects. This is admittedly a strange thing to say about a film in which a Virgin Mary dildo serves as a significant plot point, but such is the slippery eccentricity of Verhoeven’s preoccupations. He might be fascinated by the lurid and the grotesque, but he’s also earnestly interested in the puzzle of the human mind: its urges and fears, its doubts and convictions. Whether he’s truly a stealth feminist filmmaker is debatable, but in his recent films it’s clear that he is drawn to strong-willed female characters who are trying to navigate a fundamentally hostile world. Black Book (2006) concerns a Dutch resistance spy who must decide how much of her body and soul she is willing to sacrifice to liberate her nation from the Nazis. Elle follows a woman who refuses to allow anyone to dictate the “right” way for her to respond to a sexual assault – including her rapist. And here, Benedetta resolutely faces down the sneering religious hierarchs too cowardly to even describe the sex acts it abhors. Verhoeven puts his heroines through the wringer, but he’s also unequivocally fascinated by the choices that they make.