Throughout his six-decade career, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has established himself as the cinema’s most abrasive and intellectual provocateur. His directorial output has spanned Hollywood genre movies with deft satirical undercurrents (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, the oft-misunderstood Showgirls) and European art films unafraid to accost the pseudo-intellectual sensibilities of their middlebrow audiences (Turkish Delight, Black Book, Elle). He has also moonlighted as the only non-theologian admitted to the Jesus Seminar, the genesis of his popular 2007 book, Jesus of Nazareth, that focuses on the historical Christ. Five years after the Oscar-nominated Elle became the prophetic obliteration of #metoo sanctimony we didn’t know we’d need, Verhoeven has merged his interests in Christianity and his career-long preoccupation with the power dynamics of sex and violence in his new film Benedetta, a loose biopic of the 17th century Italian nun and Catholic mystic Benedetta Carlini whose lesbian relationship with one of her convent’s novices nearly led the Church to burn her at the stake.
Though it takes the form of a stodgy costume drama, Benedetta finds Verhoeven in prime subversive form as he doubles down on over-the-top dream sequences and sex scenes. In lesser hands, such melodramatic flourishes could come off as desperate attempts to scandalize. However, Verhoeven fully embraces such excess to take direct aim at the Church’s institutional failures with a bawdy acidity that would make Chaucer proud. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) receives visions that she should be married to Jesus, a white knight who appears to her before slaughtering a group of bandits with such ferocity that Halloween Kills no longer holds the distinction of featuring 2021’s most brutal scene. Benedetta knows she should remain devoted to God even though this Christ incites her carnal desires and serves as the latest in a line of domineering men in her life from her wealthy father who admitted her to the convent for political gain to the title-chasing priests who revel in their authority over the provincial Pescia. Her visions ultimately expose the fissures in her faith and lead her to shift the object of her reawakened sexuality to the peasant Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) whose admission to the convent Benedetta guilts her family into financing after they witness the girl’s father flogging her in the street.
Benedetta’s focus on sapphic passion and evil men alone could have made it a cause célèbre among the Film Twitter crowd, but Verhoeven is too invested in baiting and switching the self-righteous to cater to awards and empty online affirmations. Despite Benedetta’s copious nudity and jibes at Catholic hypocrisy, its director is dedicated to highlighting his characters’ failings, a tactic made all the more effective by the committed performances of his two leads. Benedetta may be faking the stigmata that leads her to usurp The Abbess (a gloriously restrained Charlotte Rampling) and take control of her convent, but she acts as a faithful servant of Christ whose relationship with Bartolomea is her best chance at agency. The Abbess harbors enough resentment toward Benedetta to report her for heresy, but she also must weigh her antipathy toward her successor against her abhorrence of the arrogant Nuncio in charge of investigating the affair (Lambert Wilson) and the damage his callous handling of the Black Death causes to the Tuscan people’s faith. As the film builds to its boil-covered, stake-burning riot of a conclusion, it offers some evergreen commentary about demagoguery, sacrifice, and belief. Amid this chaos, such disparate concerns and abrupt tonal shifts not only work but amount to one of the most gleefully transgressive and morally complex films in recent memory as only Verhoeven could deliver.