Benedetta review (2022) – Paul Verhoeven in fine, blasphemous form

Paul Verhoeven explores the life of Benedetta Carlini in an erotic romance movie that effectively skewers Christianity and its oppressive ideals

Between the visions of a superheroic Jesus Christ, multiple simultaneous cataclysmic events, and the sheer eroticism that underpins it all, Benedetta is a Paul Verhoeven film through and through. The period thriller movie skewers Christian imagery in a manner that’s typical of the provocative director, and accomplished in a way hard to imagine many others even trying.

The film depicts the life of Benedetta Carlini, a woman who was sold to a nunnery as a young girl by her father in 17th century Italy. It was believed that Benedetta could commune with higher powers, and was being chased by the Devil. Ascending to the role of abbess in a small town in Tuscany, she was eventually imprisoned due to a sexual relationship she had with another nun in her convent.

Verhoeven’s take on Benedetta finds virtue in her desires, truth in her dreams, and some signature black humour in what she suffered. The melting pot of rebellion and sacrilege doesn’t always find clarity, but the parts that do inspire some thanks to the powers that be for allowing us to share in the revelry.

Virginie Efira leads as the twenty-something Benedetta who, two decades after being traded by her wealthy parents, is now the lead in the abbey’s theatre productions. Not that she needs much inspiration, with vivid hallucinations of Christ as a very literal saviour, wielding a sword to stab away all tempting forces. She comes back to reality, having missed her cue, ironically forced to leave her actual dalliance with the son of God to play pretend for visitors.

This kind of contrast fuels the drama movie, where defecation becomes a vehicle for intimacy in the face of repressed emotions, and the end of days a stand-in for oppressive orthodoxy. It’s always clear something is different about Benedetta, who seems born with an angel in her ear, and an abundant fascination with what she shouldn’t do.

Her mutinous streak becomes more pronounced when she convinces then-abbess Felicita – played by a domineering Charlotte Rampling – to take in Bartolomea, who’s desperate to escape her abusive father. The two grow fascinated by each other, starting, like schoolchildren, as close friends before feelings become more apparent.

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They flirt by catching sight of each other naked while bathing, teetering on making a move, but stopping short. Despite the candlelight, their bodies are always clearly outlined, cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie making them as clear to us as they are to each other. Verhoeven views their tension as a carnal force, something intangible but far closer to whatever godliness is supposed to feel like than the intense discipline of nun and priesthood.

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As a biographical piece, Benedetta clearly believes its subject was seeing something, and occasionally coincidence was a very convenient answer. As a young girl, a statue of mother Mary falls on Benedetta while she prays, and she seemingly wills a bird to poo on a bullish crusader. In adulthood, her presence, and untoward wants, appears to beget a series of apocalyptic events, the Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) adamant that the only cure is to burn these blasphemous women at the stake.

Even with that, Benedetta isn’t really about whether what she saw was real, more how it manifested, and the fear she instils. It’s all in the way people look at her scene to scene; the longing in Bartolomea’s eyes, Felicita’s dissonance between God and what’s in front of her, and the fiery hatred in Nuncio’s belly. Through it all, Efira performs with resolute bravery, and an absolute understanding of her character.

Virginie Efira in Benedetta

Even when faced by the son of God making a case for himself to join the MCU, Efira keeps a straight face, though clearly enthused. There are points when the story, co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke, is in danger of toppling over, like a poorly made altar. The rising hysteria of disease, famine, and a potential comet grips everyone, and we start to lose focus on why we’re here. Then Efira brings it all right back, leading us to the end, as if she was the harbinger of God’s plan all along.

Even when given licence for some mayhem, Verhoeven chooses to finish on a reflective note. Perhaps this was partially an exercise in atonement for him, an opportunity to demonstrate some candour about the career he’s led, and what kind of message he wants to leave. After all, 1600s Italy seems like a far cry from science fiction movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers.

But then again, their satire is oft-misunderstood. Maybe Verhoeven thought it was time people got a clearer picture of where he stands politically, and more importantly, spiritually. Which is to say, the worst in us tends to come out when we police people’s bodies. From his lips to God’s ears.

Benedetta is in UK theatres on April 15.

Bendetta review

Paul Verhoeven’s historical drama is as singular as expected, for good and ill.

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