Virginie Efira and Charlotte Rampling shine in Benedetta, a Paul Verhoeven film that leans into the director’s trademarks and the actresses’ talents to miraculous effect.
Religious symbolism runs throughout the career of Paul Verhoeven. His first seven films, made in his native country of the Netherlands, touched on the bonds between Dutch culture with sexuality and religion. His first English-language film, Flesh & Blood, brings the symbolism even further to the foreground, going to turn-of-the-16th-Century Italy for a tale about the plague and the treatment of women at the time. Subsequent films such as RoboCop and even Showgirls have narratives influenced by biblical tales including the ascension of Jesus and the temptation of Christ. After 2000, Verhoeven returned to Europe for the WWII film Black Book (about a Jewish spy in the Netherlands) and Elle, which garnered the highest praise for Verhoeven in a quarter-century. And now, we have Benedetta, a film that could be the highest watermark in the provocateur’s career.
Benedetta stars Virginie Efira as Sister Benedetta, a nun who believes herself to be chosen by Jesus as a protector of the city of Pescia from the plague. A series of miracles follow Benedetta throughout her life, including a moment in an early scene where a child-Benedetta prays to the Virgin Mary moments before a would-be bandit gets bird poop in his eye. As she arrives at an unfinished convent overlooking debauchery in the city of Pescia outside, she is greeted by the Abbess, played by European arthouse icon Charlotte Rampling in what might be her career-best performance.
The severity of the Abbess is matched by the culture of the convent, with an adult Benedetta (Efira) finding solace in only two things — prayer and Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a younger woman who recently arrived at the convent under the protection of Benedetta herself. Benedetta begins a sexual affair with Bartolomea at the same time that she begins receiving messages from Jesus in her sleep. Benedetta first sees Jesus during a play depicting the Assumption of Mary. Benedetta wears the garment of Mary, yet speaks to Jesus like a lover, kissing him in the midst of a vision. Calling that scene Oedipal would be an understatement.
Soon Benedetta begins to display the stigmata and talks to Jesus often (including an incredible sequence where Jesus is depicted without male genitalia in a sequence that will likely get some complaints from the Catholic Council). At the same time, her sexual and romantic entanglement with Bartolomea flourishes. The psychosexual aspects of Benedetta are what most of the media surrounding the film will focus on.
Yet that misses the incredibly complex tenderness about the relationship between a woman and God. Benedetta believes herself to be visited by Jesus himself, and she claims that he acts through her in miracles. There is a constant suspension of disbelief of whether Benedetta is actually blessed, or simply putting herself in positions of success. The opposition of Benedetta with the Abbess is an ideological battle as much as it is a battle over who has the right to love whom. “We’re all entitled to a sin,” says one nun early in the film. It feels as though Verhoeven is more interested in identifying just how thin the line between “sin” and “tool to reach God” can be found. Is it greed if the money goes to serving God? Is it lust if you’re in love?
And yes, this movie is as dark and twisted and funny as you might hope. Fights over the proper amount you pay to sell your daughter to the church, a scene where someone literally “drops the soap” as a prelude to sexual activity, and very innovative use of a Virgin Mary icon all are among the most amusing moments in the film. But the religious themes will hopefully spark some true debate among film fans and Catholic scholars both. Needless to say, the movie is worth the tithe of admission.