“We must not be seen nude,” whispers the title character of Benedetta to one of her fellow nuns in a northern Italian convent in the early 17th century. Oh dear. Are you going to tell her that she’s in a movie by Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch provocateur who made Showgirls, or should I?
Then again, his previous film was Elle, in which Isabelle Huppert starred as a video-game executive who responds coolly, even playfully, to the trauma of being raped – an infinitely complex character worthy of Buñuel. In an outrageous scene at the end of that movie, she is thanked by her attacker’s devoutly Catholic wife for having provided him with an outlet for his extreme sadistic impulses.
This small, almost unplayable role might have confounded another actor, but Virginie Efira carried it off with devastating sincerity. Now Efira takes spiritual conviction to another level as Benedetta, whose religious visions and taboo desires bring her into conflict with the Church. The title of Verhoeven’s factual source material – Judith Brown’s 1985 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy – gives it to us straight. To this, the director adds his trademark special sauce: excess, in all its forms.
Benedetta’s visions start off benignly. An image of Christ calling her from a sun-blanched hilltop to be his wife comes while she is performing in a play at the convent, causing her toes to wiggle delightedly when she’s meant to be dead.
An escalation in the intensity of the visions coincides with the arrival of Bartolomea, a woebegone sort taken in by the convent to save her from parental abuse. The endearingly pop-eyed Daphne Patakia plays Bartolomea with an earthy, punky naivety. Her first question is, “Where do we shit?” Enchanted, Benedetta accompanies her to the relevant hole, then hands her a fistful of hay with which to clean herself. It’s love.
In no time at all, Benedetta is imagining herself besieged by giant, writhing serpents. After being beckoned by Christ to the cross and asked to disrobe, she develops stigmata. The sceptical abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) points out that the nun had been asleep when the wounds appeared, rather than at prayer. “No miracle occurs in bed, believe me,” she sneers. Rampling brings a lifetime’s sourness to the part. Lemons would turn sweet in her presence.
Having staged Benedetta’s initial visions in all their lurid B-movie ripeness, Verhoeven abruptly starts withholding them. We can see the stigmata, and hear the bestial voice that roars from her lips during these episodes, but we are no longer privy to the internal catalyst. The effect is to introduce ambiguity just at the point when the stakes are at their highest – to demand from us our own leap of faith. This is made more complicated when Benedetta profits from her newly privileged position. She is made abbess herself, and begins bossing her sisters around based on orders from the man upstairs. She passes on the Lord’s instructions to Felicita, then turns to another nun and says: “Jesus didn’t mention you.” Burn!
As abbess, Benedetta is moved into her own private quarters. This, in the words of MTV Cribs, is where the magic happens. But how do two nuns in love pass the time away from prying eyes? Don’t think that Verhoeven, of all people, hasn’t considered that. A scandalous scene not found in Brown’s learned study shows Bartolomea working away with a knife at one end of a handheld wooden replica of the Virgin Mary, producing in the process an artisanal sex toy. As Lauren Bacall very nearly put it in To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whittle, don’t you…?”
Anyone who is familiar with The Devils or The Name of the Rose will realise that this hysterical hothouse environment can’t survive the intrusion of hostile external forces. The downside of Verhoeven’s fever-pitch film-making is that by the time the papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson) turns up with his torture instruments, closely followed by the plague, an audience is likely to have exhausted its reserves of outrage and horror. Whatever reactions Verhoeven hopes to elicit during the film’s final half-hour, numbness surely couldn’t be among them. Let us be grateful, though, that at 83 years old he remains as iconoclastic, and as unable to rein himself in, as ever.
“Benedetta” is in cinemas from 15 April
[See also: The Bubble signals the onset of the pandemic blockbuster]
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special