Verhoeven is back, baby. I was less than amused by the Dutch prankster’s outrageous rape comedy Elle—despite its broad critical consensus as a sharply observed satire—so it feels nice to rejoin the cheerleading squad for its nunsploitation follow-up. Benedetta is part erotic thriller, part body-possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, and pure Paul Verhoeven. It’s great! It’s a shame that the master provocateur has been relegated to scrappy indie budgets in his late career, though. It’d be a lot more fun to watch a mainstream audience squirm under his thumb instead of the self-selecting freaks who are already on-board with his blasphemy against good sense & good taste. Even at 83 years old, Verhoeven is still raising neck hairs & eyebrows; he just used to be able to rile up an even wider audience with flashier budgets & celebrity stunt casting. I mourn for a world where Benedetta would’ve been a controversial water cooler movie instead of an obscure reference that makes your coworkers think you’re a pretentious snob. Even the small Catholic protests that have followed around the movie’s premieres in cities like Chicago & NYC like The Grateful Dead are living in a fantasy world where it will have any cultural impact beyond plumping up a few sicko film critics’ Best of the Year lists. I enjoyed joining them in that fantasy for a couple hours during its brief theatrical run in New Orleans, but I do question the usefulness of a provocation that no one shows up to be offended by.
Like with all nunsploitation movies, whatever hoopla & headlines Benedetta will be able to generate will likely focus on its onscreen depictions of lesbian sex. Verhoeven shamelessly indulges in that salacious aspect of his historical source material, but it’s not the main thrust of the film’s blasphemy. The kinkiest his young nuns in love get is in fashioning a dildo out of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems more like a circumstance of convenience than anything; sometimes you just have to make do with what’s lying around. The real button-pusher here is the political rise-to-power story of the titular Italian blasphemer: a 17th Century nun who claimed to experience miraculous visions of Jesus Christ, resulting in a powergrab takeover of her small-village convent. Benedetta’s political rivals are other local higher-ups in the Catholic Church who are both fearful of the power she wields among the villagers (claiming to protect them from encroachment of the Bubonic Plague) and willing to humor her blasphemy as long as it brings money & attention from the religious tourism industry. The blasphemy is in how openly the movie takes Benedetta’s side in the battle, even while questioning whether her miraculous visions are genuine. The second she arrives at the convent as a young child, she’s taught that bodily pleasure is an affront to God, that she should live in constant agony on Earth to honor Him. Watching her claim to have an even more intimate relationship with God than her superiors, and that He said she should be allowed as many orgasms & daily comforts as she desires is delightfully transgressive, even if she’s flat-out lying about it. Speaking as a lapsed Catholic with long-lingering issues with guilt & self-hatred thanks to the Church’s fucked up views on pleasure & morality, Benedetta is essentially a superhero to me. I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess who the supervillain is.
As much fun as I had with Benedetta as political theatre, I still missed the slicker Hollywood budgets Verhoeven used to be afforded in his heyday. The closest the film gets to recalling his 80s & 90s crowdteasers is in its illustrations of Benedetta’s religious visions, in which she fantasizes in-the-flesh erotic encounters as Jesus’s bride. I was fully prepared for the film’s sexual theatrics & religious torments, but I was blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel, riding into the frame on horseback to sweep his young nun-bride off her feet. Unfortunately, the film backs off from illustrating those visions in its second half in a ludicrous effort to “play both sides,” questioning whether Benedetta was a shameless blasphemer or a true believer. It’s fun to root for her even when you believe her to be a liar, but I still would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass with Fabio hair & glistening abs. No one has depicted “religious ecstasy” so erotically since Ken Russell was still kicking around, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Verhoeven eases off that indulgence. It’s also just a welcome return to the high-style genre filmmaking of his Greatest Hits, while the rest of the film is shot more like a muted costume drama despite the sensationalist story it tells.
There are parts of Benedetta that outraged me, from Catholicism’s reverence for Earthly anguish to the film’s own preoccupations with sexual assault & torture. It’s also a movie that opens with several shit & fart jokes, just so you know it’s okay to have a good time despite its many discomforts. Verhoeven’s been incredibly adept at that exact clash between cruelty & camp for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s honestly just nice to see that he’s still got it. I just find it shameful that we’re not throwing more money at him to offend & titillate on a larger scale.