Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Benedetta’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

The provocateur returns to competition with this French-language drama, based on a true story about a 17th-century nun who was chastised for her religious visions and lesbian affairs.

It’s long been known that Paul Verhoeven, the man behind such taboo-breaking movies as Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Elle, has been fascinated by the life of Jesus Christ.

He was once a member of the highbrow Jesus Seminar, founded by American biblical scholar Robert Funk, and at some point he was supposed to make a film called Jesus: The Man before the project wound up falling through. He even co-authored a book, Jesus of Nazareth, which was published in 2007 and translated into several languages.


The Bottom Line


Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphé Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Chevillotte
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, inspired by the book ‘Immodest Acts’ by Judith C. Brown

2 hours 7 minutes

But just because Verhoeven is a scholar, of sorts, on the teachings of Christianity, it doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to challenge them — or more like torture and blaspheme until they’re begging for mercy — in his latest boundary-pushing drama, Benedetta.

Inspired by the life of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century Italian nun who claimed she had visions of Jesus, was chastised for being a lesbian, and then managed to shrewdly obtain saint status in her Tuscan city of Pescia, the story has all the elements of a vintage Verhoeven brew: sex, violence, betrayals, moral ambiguity, religious hypocrisy — and, of course, a Virgin Mary statue that’s transformed into a dildo.

It may all seem a bit ludicrous and it’s definitely way over-the-top, but Verhoeven’s movies have always bordered on camp because they tend to function as satires, tackling such thorny issues as American hegemony (Starship Troopers), colonization (Total Recall) and the police state (RoboCop). Benedetta, with its twisted take on the Catholic faith and the powers-that-be who reigned over it in Renaissance Italy, is no exception to the rule.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the film won’t infuriate certain viewers, or perhaps a bunch of them, with its scenes of full-frontal nudity and eroticism, most of them involving women. Some people are sure to find it all rather offensive, and the movie’s prospects at the U.S. box office are about as dim as the candle-lit cells in Benedetta’s convent.

But there’s also a method to Verhoeven’s madness (or is that misogyny?), and like Elle or Showgirls or even Basic Instinct, Benedetta is about a woman clawing her way to power in a male-dominated world, gradually finding her own voice and then achieving emancipation. The unlikely trajectory of Benedetta Carlini is certainly viewed through a male gaze, and a shameless one at that, and yet to consider this tale of faith and acumen triumphing over false virtue as a mere case of exploitation is to write it off too easily.

Benedetta is fearlessly portrayed by Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who, after a stint on French variety shows and in a handful of comedies, has proved to be a more serious screen presence in recent efforts like Justine Triet’s Sibyl and Anne Fontaine’s Night Shift.

Following a prologue, where we see young Benedetta committed by her noble parents to a convent of Theatine nuns presided over by the stodgy Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), we pick up her story 18 years later. At that point, she’s grown into a respected member of the cloister, albeit one who experiences troubling visions of Jesus that Verhoeven shoots like full-fledged Hollywood action sequences, doubling down on the violence and gore as if to highlight how R-rated the Bible can be.

Whether or not these visions are actually real keeps us guessing throughout the movie, and the screenplay (co-written by Elle scribe David Birke) asks us to question Benedetta’s sincerity as she faces challenges to both her beliefs and her position at the convent.

And yet the larger question posed by Verhoeven is what such sincerity really means at a time, and in a place, where women had very little agency — where being a nun, which meant giving up carnal desires and limited social freedoms, was one of the only ways to achieve any sort of liberty, even if it meant within the confines of a holy prison.

Early on we learn that many of Benedetta’s sisters come from backgrounds of adversity: one was born Jewish, and, after suffering a life of anti-Semitism, is now slowly dying from breast cancer; another is a prostitute; and then there’s the new arrival, Bartolomea (Belgian newcomer Daphné Patakia), who was raped by her father and brothers until running off to the convent, where Felicita agrees to take her in for a fee. (Verhoeven points out how savvy the abbess can be when it comes to obtaining financing for her nunnery).

From the moment she shows up, there’s clearly an animal attraction between the young, not-so-innocent and clearly traumatized Bartolomea and the older, conflicted Benedetta. In typically subversive Verhoeven fashion, one of the first scenes where they share any intimacy involves them defecating together in the cloister toilets, sound effects included. Soon, Bartolomea is making passes at Benedetta, and every time she does so the latter experiences another vision, as if the prospect of sexual ecstasy brings her closer to Christ — or else reminds her of her vows to remain both pious and chaste.

“Your worst enemy is your body,” a nun had warned Benedetta early on, and a significant portion of the film involves her resisting, and eventually overcoming, that lesson, with Bartolomea helping her along. As the two get close to committing the act, stigmata miracoulsly appear on Benedetta’s hands, feet and forehead, indicating that she may be some kind of saint. Whether that’s true or not, it allows her to replace Felicita at the top of the cloister hierarchy, which means she gets to have her very own private bedroom.

Soon enough the two sisters are sleeping together in there, and Verhoeven hardly shies away from what occurs between the sheets. Rather, he seems hell-bent (sorry) on capturing Benedetta’s burgeoning sexuality at the hands of Bartolomea, showing how vital it is for her — how having an orgasm is a veritable moment of self-discovery. Again, it’s easy to dismiss this as a case of the Dutch director getting his rocks off behind the camera, but there’s little doubt that for Benedetta, the sex, including with the aforementioned dildo, is filled with meaning.

From then on, things begin to crumble, with Felicita taking off to Florence to alert the nuncio (Lambert Wilson) about Benedetta’s false claims of saintliness and her illicit relationship with Bartolomea. When she gets there, the bubonic plague has already riddled the city, and the nuncio proves himself to be a cartoonish church official who’s only concerned with maintaining power and dominating all the women around him.

At over two hours, the narrative can feel a bit clunky in places, although Verhoeven throws in a few funny lines and enough action to keep Benedetta from descending into a long-winded sacrilegious exposé. Even if all of the dialogue is in French, there’s something very Hollywoodish about the way he and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM) have staged scenes for maximum impact in all the tight settings, keeping the pace fresh enough.

By the time Benedetta takes her stand against the papal authorities in the film’s big closing set piece, there are few nuns left to support her — the same way that many viewers may have abandoned the movie by then, laughing it off as silly exploitative garbage. We may never know if Benedetta was sincere about her visions in the end, just as it’s impossible to judge how sincere Verhoeven is when he’s indulging in the kind of erotic fantasies that have made him famous. The beauty of Benedetta is that it never provides a straightforward answer to all of our questions, leaving it up to us to decide if we believe or not.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: SBS Productions, Pathé
Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphé Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Chevillotte
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, inspired by the book ‘Immodest Acts’ by Judith C. Brown
Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, Jérôme Seydoux
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque
Editors: Job ter Burg
Composer: Anne Dudley
Casting director: Stéphane Batut
Sales: Pathé International

2 hours 7 minutes