Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Starring Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson.
A nun at an Italian convent believes she experiences visions of Jesus Christ himself, and pursues a romantic relationship with another woman.
When you go to see a movie by Paul Verhoeven, you know you’re not in for an easy ride. The director’s films are strong, confrontational and unafraid to tackle just about any subject. With that, Benedetta slots neatly into his oeuvre – a strange and unconventional journey into the dark, devout world of a 17th century convent. The threat of plague lurks permanently outside the doors, but the suffocating rules and fundamentalism on the inside are, in the world Verhoeven creates at least, every bit as dangerous.
Unfortunately – or, I suppose, fortunately depending on your perspective – Verhoeven’s affection for trashiness is present and correct here. Beneath the clothes of a serious, religion-themed thriller is a sexed-up bit of nunsploitation which might have a few things to say, but they’re all pretty obvious. Beneath all the boobs and the blood, delivered with a prestige sheen, there’s not much on offer here.
The title character is brought to a convent in the Tuscan city of Pescia as a child during the 17th century by her parents. On her first night, a statue of the Virgin Mary falls on her, but is miraculously blocked before it can crush her. 18 years later, Virginie Efira plays the adult Benedetta as she formally becomes a nun under the demanding Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) and begins to have visions of Jesus Christ. This coincides with the arrival of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who enters the convent while fleeing her violent father and quickly discovers a sexual spark with Benedetta. While paranoia builds, she develops stigmata and soon she’s being treated with reverence by the people of Pescia.
Efira is a real bright light at the centre of the movie, providing a grounded and believable performance amid the carnage Verhoeven creates. She manages the tone far better than just about anybody else, giving a devilish glee to the more comedic moments and finding real emotion in the serious sequences. Considering she’s handed storylines in which a figurine of the Virgin becomes a sex toy and her vision of Jesus hacks multiple snakes to death before snogging her, it’s impressive that her performance feels so thoroughly centred.
There’s an unruly feel to the movie and, while that’s endearing and engaging in the early stages, it soon becomes wearying when it transpires that there’s not much in the way of direction. Verhoeven is somewhat scuppered by his own sense of playfulness, which gets in the way of his commentary about the nonsense of religion at its most extreme, and his weakness for titillation. There’s nothing wrong with cinema being sexy, but there’s a whiff of male gaze silliness in the sex scenes, despite the presence of cinematographer and regular Agnès Varda collaborator Jeanne Lapoirie behind the camera.
Verhoeven certainly delivers a decent whack of entertainment in Benedetta, and there’s fun to be had in its absurdist sense of humour. But he drifts into tropes often and the onslaught of brutality never seems to particularly signify anything. It’s the second slightly naff take on religion this year – after Neil Marshall’s dismal The Reckoning – to make use of the probably apocryphal “pear of anguish” as a torture device. That’s probably a cue that there’s not too much in the way of a serious argument being put forward. At just over two hours, the movie plods around in circles searching desperately for a point worth making.
“This convent seems rarely bound by the possible,” states one character after witnessing one of the movie’s stranger moments. That’s true of the film’s legendary director as well, for better and – in this case slightly more often – for worse.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.