Ever the bad boy even into his 80s, director Paul Verhoeven stirs the pot and turns the heat up to the boiling point in Benedetta, a medieval brew of religious fervor, illicit lesbian sex in a convent, Catholic church politics and — to incidentally add a contemporaneous touch — a plague sweeping the land. Shot three summers ago in Tuscany and delayed in its Cannes Film Festival premiere by a year due to the 2020 edition’s cancellation, the film, like all the director’s work, is wild, intelligent, pulsating, provocative and vibrantly alive. Cecil B. DeMille would be outraged, while Ken Russell would be wildly jealous.
Verhoeven followers will recall that, in contrast to his ribald reputation, he came out with a scholarly book in 2008 called Jesus Of Nazareth, which was generally praised as a deeply researched and intelligent investigation in Jesus’ life and thoughts. When he decided not to pursue that as a film, he turned his attention to this project, which is based on a 1986 non-fiction book by Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy.
Teaming up again with screenwriter David Birke, who wrote the director’s terrific previous film, Elle, Verhoeven once again pushes all the buttons that will titillate, provoke, excite, offend and — a quality he’s maintained throughout the decades — mix impudent and outrageous conceits with serious smarts.
Set in Tuscany in the late 1600s (it was shot mostly in the area of Montepulciano), the film at once establishes that this is not going to be a straightlaced, reverent look at convent life. The nunnery is overseen by the aging Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) and it’s an estimable, exclusive establishment that only admits three new postulants per year. Take that, Smith and Barnard.
“Your biggest enemy is your body,” the abbess insists to her flock, a position paired with a parallel edict: “Intelligence can be dangerous.”
One young woman who will clearly have problems with this attitude is Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira), whose curiosity and overall bright disposition seems at odds with her position at the nunnery, even if her faith is unquestioned. The basics of convent life are amply portrayed in instructive fashion, including various details about which you might have been curious but afraid to seem impertinent. Verhoeven has anticipated your interest.
When another postulant arrives, one to be called Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), trouble looks to follow. She speaks in a vulgar way and introduces untoward elements into convent life that before long triggers behavior the likes of which Catholic kids might have long joked or imagined but which, for sure, have never been enacted in anything resembling a mainstream movie.
To be clear, there’s sex, and plenty of it. Some of it may go over the top—or under the bottom — and there are bits that will no doubt appear over the line and perhaps exploitative. Nudity abounds, but then it wouldn’t be a Verhoeven film without it. At the same time, however, the director has inhabited this uninhibited realm for a long time and well knows how to mix the serious and provocative with humor and self-conscious outrageousness. When we see a sex toy one of nuns has hidden away, the whole audience in Cannes laughed with, not at, Verhoeven’s audacity.
Still, this is serious stuff at heart, a story of church politics as much as anything, and the issues at hand become grave indeed with the arrival of both the plague and Le Nonce (Lambert Wilson), a high church mucky-muck who intends to clean house of the dirty doings said to have taken place at the nunnery. Church doctrine and scriptural readings can always be twisted to suit the occasion and Le Nonce is a skillful practitioner of interpreting Biblical edicts for his own purposes.
But then comes the plague, which exempts no class or hierarchy from its devastation. Much as the filmmakers might have been frustrated over the past two years at the film not being released, the alarming plague footage in the final act will play with far greater resonance to viewers all over the world in the wake of the Covid virus. Inadvertently and unfortunately for us all, Benedetta has very much become a film of this moment.