Lest anyone think Paul Verhoeven’s latest shocker was intended to be a serious look at sexuality in religious service, the promotional poster for the film plastered around the Cannes Film Festival — where “Benedetta” bowed in competition — depicts actor Virginie Efira dressed as a 17th-century Italian nun, her white habit pulled open to reveal an airbrushed nipple. This is an erotic film, full stop, and though “Benedetta” is smarter in various respects than such sisters-in-exploitation as “Put Your Devil Into My Hell” and “The Killer Nun,” in others, it’s much, much dumber.
Let’s begin with the wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is young Benedetta’s most prized possession when she enters the Theatine convent as an 8-year-old novice, and that, by the film’s end, will have been whittled into a shape through which ecstasy is far more easily achieved. Everything is either obvious, vulgar or some smarmy combination of the two in this racy follow-up to Verhoeven’s rape-themed 2016 thriller “Elle.” In that film, it was as if Isabelle Huppert’s character were pushing back on a depraved male fantasy as it unfolded, reclaiming her agency by taking control of the situation and flipping it for her own pleasure.
Here, Verhoeven reteams with “Elle” screenwriter David Burke to adapt Judith C. Brown’s rigorously researched “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” and while the project will also be read as a feminist statement by some — the book details a true, high-profile case of homosexuality at a time when such records were scarce — the film is far less ambiguous about its intentions. With its haters-be-damned approach to all things carnal, “Benedetta” is intended to arouse, thereby satisfying the most basic definition of pornography, even if Verhoeven (who claims a certain scholarly interest in the subject as well) does surround the titillating bits with illuminating insights into Renaissance religious life.
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Since the days of “Turkish Delight,” this has been the subversive essence of Verhoeven’s oeuvre. Indeed, the director has spent his entire career challenging the societal notion that the representation of something as fundamental to the human experience as sex (without which none of us would be here) should be verboten. But it’s not sex that seems to interest Verhoeven so much as kink, and though cultural values are changing fast when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance, it’s doubtful that the 82-year-old director would have much interest in Benedetta Carlini’s story if her bedroom exploits were not so controversial.
Simply put, “Benedetta” intends to offend, and Verhoeven sets about that mission from the outset, showing a commedia dell’arte street theater troupe lighting their farts for the amusement of unsophisticated crowds. Verhoeven’s career descends from this tradition, even if he’s intelligent enough to offset the profanity with blunt social critique — the “Showgirls” strategy. In the opening scene, young Benedetta stands up to a group of outlaws, claiming a direct line of communication with heaven (“The Virgin does all I ask of her”). The bandits mock her, and then, as if on command, a bird evacuates in one of their faces.
Is this some kind of sign? Once you start looking for miracles, they become surprisingly easy to find, the Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) of the Theatines warns, and though “Benedetta” loosely derives from documented history, on-screen every seemingly supernatural event occurs at the screenwriters’ will. In cinema, the filmmaker is God, after all, and Verhoeven’s strategy is to inspire a level of doubt over whether his protagonist is really getting support from upstairs, as each new marvel seems more extreme, from visions and trances to speaking in tongues and receiving the stigmata.
The abbess and her followers are skeptical at first, but that’s the paradox of all religions: So much of it must be taken on faith. Verhoeven invites a certain ambiguity so as to have it both ways, where believers won’t feel that he’s attacking their religion outright, while skeptics have enough clues to reach their own conclusions (like the shards of pottery Benedetta may have used to inflict her own wounds). The director further armors himself against detractors by embracing camp, pushing the plainly outrageous elements to such extremes as to elicit ironic laughter: the sexy Jesus and knowingly bad CGI of Benedetta’s visions, the relish with which the Papal Nonce (Lambert Wilson) presents “the pear” — a gruesome vaginal torture device.
It all amounts to a very transgressive form of divine comedy for those willing to join Verhoeven on his sacrilegious wavelength. And why watch “Benedetta” in any other way? The helmer operates in the same broad, manipulative strokes that Mel Gibson brought to “The Passion of the Christ,” reducing all but Benedetta to one-dimensional agendas. The men of the church may seem pious, but their actions are all motivated by political advantage. The women submit to the patriarchy, but find cunning ways to grasp power as it comes, as represented by the brave but futile stand taken by the abbess’ most faithful servant (Louise Chevillot).
But what of the notorious lesbian love story? One could presumably tune out all the religious scandal and choose to see “Benedetta” as nothing more than the story of two women passionately attracted to one another in an environment where, as one nun puts it, “your worst enemy is your body.” Efira plays Benedetta as a sincerely devout member of the Theatine order who experiences a strong and inexplicable connection to a peasant girl, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), who seeks shelter from her abusive father within the convent.
Verhoeven’s never been one for subtlety, but there’s a tenderness to these early scenes as the women establish a tentative intimacy. Bartolomea isn’t shy about her body, whereas Benedetta wrestles with her guilt as she steals glimpses of the tomboyish new arrival. (She also holds a mirror to the hidden corners of her own anatomy.) To think that Cannes turned down Pedro Almodóvar’s “Dark Habits” back in the day but awarded a shared best actress prize to the cloistered co-leads of Christian Mungiu’s 2012 “Beyond the Hills.” And now this!
Say what you will about religion, but “Benedetta” argues that there has been no more repressive force on human sexuality than those rules attributed to God yet agreed upon and enforced by men. Verhoeven comes down on the side of personal gratification, and that’s the problem: It’s all well and good to stick up for a pair of 17th-century lesbians, but as their plight is presented here, we’re keenly aware that they’re being ogled by a pervy old man.
It’s the “Blue Is the Warmest Color” problem all over again — not so much the male gaze (DP Jeanne Lapoirie is a woman; she has shot several queer classics, including “Wild Reeds” and “BPM”) as the conceit that two inexperienced female lovers, deprived of role models, would have porn-caliber sex their first time out, changing positions multiple times for the benefit of a steamy montage. It’s in these scenes that Verhoeven’s agenda seems most apparent, revealing “Benedetta” to be not a groundbreaking film, but just another entry in the tawdry nunsploitation genre.
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