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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

There are the sacred cinema nuns, such as Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1959), the profane nuns of 70s sexploitation epitomized by Walerian Borowcyzk’s Behind Convent Walls (1978) and the comedy nuns of Sister Act (1992). Remarkably, Paul Verhoeven’s new Benedetta seems to take a sip of every chalice available.

Or perhaps it isn’t so remarkable. After all, no one could have read the news that the director of Showgirls (1995) was adapting a book called Immodest Acts: the Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy and expected The Bells of St Mary’s (1945). To be clear, despite its title Judith Brown’s 1987 book is a work of scholarly research, using original documents to tell the true story of Benedetta and provide Verhoeven and his co-writer David Birke with the frame of their narrative.

A devotedly religious child, Benedetta (Elena Plonka), is transported to the small Italian town of Pescia, where she is to be admitted to the convent. After haggling about the dowry her father must pay, the Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling) admits her as a novice, where she must learn that “your worst enemy is your body”.

Benedetta (2021)

Mortifying the flesh is the way towards God, but Benedetta also has visions and, grown into a young woman (Virginie Efira), the mortification of the flesh and the pleasure of the flesh become confused. This is heightened by erotic dreams of a sexy action hero Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié), who rescues the young nun from demons and wants her for his bride. The entrance into the convent of a young woman, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), the victim of a violent and abusive father, adds further logs to the blaze.

Verhoeven’s attitude to the church is similar to his attitude towards the military in Starship Troopers (1998): he enjoys the paraphernalia and the aesthetic while satirizing the ideology. Rampling’s Mother Superior is a practical politician who states “this is a convent, not a charity“ and is suspicious of Benedetta’s miracles, even when she develops stigmata.

But her detached practical religion cannot withstand the novel enthusiasm of Benedetta’s religious ecstasy. Benedetta’s own personal Jesus empowers her and, on the strength of her stigmata and her promise to save the town from the ravages of the plague, she soon supplants the Mother Superior. Her power and her conviction of divine intimacy allows her to fully express her passion for Bartolomea and before you can say the rosary a statue of the Virgin Mary has been repurposed in a way that you can perhaps already imagine.

Benedetta (2021)

Increasingly, the film resembles a sort of ecclesiastical Basic Instinct (1992), with Benedetta as a Catherine Tramell, with similar blonde locks once sans wimple and a penchant for exposing herself. Jeanne Lapoirie’s camera captures a relatively clean 17th century; even when the young women take a bonding sit on the commode it makes for an attractive orange and teal tableaux. The candlelit sex scenes recall early 90s erotic thrillers and when a comet colours the sky a lurid purple it smacks of the Vegas neon of Showgirls. Anne Dudley’s music shifts between authentic period instruments and chorales and a lusher score.

It is difficult to tell how seriously to take the film, and how seriously the film is taking itself. There’s gothic melodrama mixed in with what veers dangerously close to a porn parody version of Name of the Rose (1986). It is at times very funny. Rampling adds venom to her lines of cynicism and Lambert Wilson’s Papal Nuncio is a portrait of power at its slipperiest. Efira and Patakia throw themselves into their vixenish power games and sex with famished verve. But exactly who is left to be shocked by this? It is no longer 1971, when Ken Russell’s The Devils was condemned by the Catholic Church, and Verhoeven’s movie has none of the stink or the pain of Russell’s film. Torture leaves no lasting marks and corruption slides rather than reeks.

With respect for the sacred depleted and with it the capacity of the sacrilegious to shock, Verhoeven’s latest is more likely to draw fire for the male-orientated version of lesbianism – female cinematographer notwithstanding – that hasn’t progressed much from the soft porn of Zalman King.

If there is a serious mystery at the heart of the film, it is in how far we believe Benedetta believes. Is she a saint or a fraud? A madwoman? Or is her fraudulence divinely sanctioned and in that way justified? With all the deceit going on, it is an additional historical irony to savour that Pescia is now famous as the birthplace of Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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