A torrid melodrama about two gorgeous nuns having an affair in a 17th-Century convent – as directed and co-written by Paul Verhoeven, the maker of Basic Instinct and Showgirls? It sounds like the kind of ridiculous fake film that might crop up in a broad Hollywood satire. And, yes, there are scenes in Benedetta that could have come from a faux trailer lampooning Verhoeven's most notorious predilections. Women's breasts are grabbed, men's chests are stabbed, and if you don't approve of visions of a horse-riding, sword-swishing Jesus, look away now.
But Verhoeven's new French film, his first since he made a comeback with Elle in 2016, is a reminder that he is a lot more than a gleeful purveyor of sex and violence. Benedetta, for much of its running time, is a restrained, handsome, and even traditional period drama, a stately parade of elegant costumes and beautifully candle-lit stone buildings, set to a dignified orchestral score by Anne Dudley. It's a thoughtful examination of politics and organised religion, and a searing exploration of faith. The nudity and the blood-splashing are just a bonus.
Co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke, the film is adapted from a book by Judith C Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. But that title and subtitle don't do the scale of the story justice. It's the story of Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), the daughter of a wealthy merchant. As a little girl, Benedetta is convinced that the Virgin Mary talks and listens to her, but that isn't enough to get her into the Theatine Convent in the city of Pescia. The Abbess (a wonderfully wily Charlotte Rampling) has no qualms in stating that a convent isn't a place of charity: anyone who wants their daughter to be a bride of Christ has to pay a whopping dowry.
Benedetta's father ends up paying twice over – once for Benedetta, and once, 18 years later, for a farm girl, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), who begs for sanctuary from her abusive family. Benedetta has already been having erotic visions of a handsome Jesus, but when this earthy, forthright novice smiles at her, she begins to have other hankerings. Could sacred love and carnal love be related?
Benedetta is a substantial, sophisticated, yet briskly paced and always highly entertaining drama
It isn't long before Verhoeven delivers the kind of sensuous, explicit, and narratively gripping sex scene that was in Basic Instinct. He then delivers another one, in which the nuns make sacrilegious use of a carved wooden figurine of the Virgin Mary, and someone else makes use of a peephole. There's no getting around it: whether you approve or not, Verhoeven loves his films to have naked women in them. But Benedetta's secret relationship is only a part of the plot. What really causes a stir is her appearance in chapel one morning with deep stigmatic wounds. The Abbess and various other church bigwigs (Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin) are in a quandary that recalls the satire in Verhoeven's RoboCop and Starship Troopers. Could they be witnessing a miracle? Or are the wounds self-inflicted? But if they are self-inflicted, could God still have been responsible? And does any of that matter, considering that miracles can be good for business? After all, at a time when a plague is creeping through the land, rumours of a divine nun could be more valuable than ever. "Perhaps," suggests the Abbess, "God sent us a madwoman to spout nonsense and serve our ends".
Far from being a steamy nun-sploitation thriller about women with bad habits – well, it's partly that, to be honest – Benedetta is a substantial, sophisticated, yet briskly paced and always highly entertaining drama, which balances quiet scenes of shrewd backroom politicking with lurid scenes of wild religious madness. Allegiances and priorities keep shifting as a rich cast of characters struggles to work out what's best for them and best for the convent, and viewers struggle to work out the latest of Verhoeven's defiant blondes. Is the poised and confident Benedetta a Joan of Arc, a Catherine Tramell, or something in between?
The film is also eerily topical, with all its talk of plagues and lockdowns – I say "eerily", because Verhoeven shot it three years ago. Some of the plague sequences have the parodic feel of Monty Python and Jabberwocky about them: that's inevitable whenever walled cities and pustulent peasants are on screen. But Benedetta has plenty of mischievous humour of its own, even as it takes its heroine and her beliefs seriously. The control that Verhoeven has over so many characters, threads and tones is almost a miracle in itself. The director is nearly 83, and his new film is up there with the best of his long career.
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