At the Cannes Film Festival press conference for Paul Verhoeven’s competition title Benedetta this morning, director and cast fielded a series of questions about the film’s use of nudity and sex while Verhoeven bristled at the suggestion Benedetta is in any way blasphemous. “I do not understand really how you can be blasphemous about something that happened… You cannot basically change history after the fact. You can talk about that was wrong or not, but you cannot change history. I think the word blasphemy for me in this case is stupid,” he said.
The steamy period piece, which premiered last night, is the true story of Sister Benedetta Carlini, a 17th Century abbess whose claims of mystical visions and miracles were investigated by the Catholic church in a trial that lasted from 1619-23 and resulted in her imprisonment. Deadline’s Todd McCarthy described it in his review as “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.”
There is plenty of sex and nudity, but the actors were unfazed, they said today. Star Virginie Efira believes, “Sexuality is an interesting subject. There aren’t that many directors who know how to film it. Paul Verhoeven has known from the beginning and is someone who has dealt with this major topic in an amazing way. Nudity is of no interest when it’s not depicted in a beautiful way, that’s not what Paul does. Everything was very joyful when we stripped off our clothes.”
Daphné Patakia, who plays Sister Bartolomea, concurred, “You forget there are these naked bodies. I have the impression that even in Paul’s other films, these scenes where people are nude or making love, well they speak reams.” Patakia said she didn’t hesitate for a second when she was approached for the role. Even though there are love scenes which might have been “a bit scary,” Verhoeven, “immediately talked to me about the love scenes so I knew exactly how they were going to be shot.”
Verhoeven chimed in, “In general, when people have sex, they take their clothes off so I’m stunned by the fact that we don’t want to look at the reality of life. Why this puritanism has been introduced is, in my opinion, wrong.”
There is certainly a shying away from nudity, Verhoeven allowed. “What we had in the 70s, everyone on the beaches was topless. That is completely gone and I don’t think that is an improvement.”
Actress Louise Chevillotte took a question on Verhoeven’s ability to work with women and said, “Women are depicted in a complex way. What I love in Paul’s films is that women are portrayed in all their complexity and this film is the embodiment of that approach.”
For co-star Clotilde Courau, “feminism is very much there,” in Benedetta, “thanks to Paul’s approach and sensitivity. There is an animal side to the film and that is part and parcel of a human being. Working with Paul is a huge opportunity. In his films there is no viewpoint, he lets each viewer adopt their own viewpoint.”
Verhoeven said he was driven to make Benedetta because it was “about events that in some way had really happened.” He added, “I was not trying to get into some female thing that I didn’t understand. I understood it because the women themselves told me in the book what they were doing.”
Read Deadline’s deep dive with Verhoeven here.