Benedetta is based on a true story, and even has the earnestly factual epilogue text at the end to prove its historical bona fides but, if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that the real events did not quite play out like you’ll see here. This is a Paul Verhoeven film through and through and that means every kind of provocation you can imagine, from a hunky action-hero version of Jesus to weaponised breast milk and even a wooden dildo fashioned out of a Virgin Mary statue. As you’d expect from Verhoeven, it’s a supremely silly, horny film, but also breathlessly funny and entirely self-aware.
Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) was a real nun in 17th Century Italy, blessed (or, maybe, plagued) with visions of Christ that earned her immense power and status before a bombshell trial found her guilty of lesbianism within her convent. It’s the kind of story that could easily play out as a sincere, meditative drama on faith and repression, but also just as easily as a lurid exploitation thriller, and no prizes for guessing which way Verhoeven goes with it – Benedetta is brilliantly campy nonsense far more in the vein of Showgirls And Starship Troopers than Elle.
Joining the convent in the walled town of Pescia as a child, Benedetta shows from an early age an ability to commune with the Virgin Mary, an ability that grows as she ages until – according to her at least – she speaks directly to Christ himself. She serves the convent and its Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) faithfully, if a little pridefully, until wide-eyed waif Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) bursts through the doors seeking sanctuary from her monstrous father. Her arrival awakens something in Benedetta, a physical lust that then extends to her religious visions, which become increasingly violent and sexual.
Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke keep you guessing as to the validity of Benedetta’s claims to channel Jesus. Moments in which she seems to channel Christ’s voice directly are played sincerely, but the visions themselves are amusingly ridiculous (Jesus often chopping off heads or stripping nude), and we never see whether her stigmata-like injuries are miraculous or self-inflicted. This central uncertainty just adds to the fun though, and Efira’s committed, full-throttle performance makes Benedetta a hugely compelling lead, liar or not. Crucially, Efira knows exactly what film she’s in, and she’s able to tune into Verhoeven’s particular wavelength, earning lots of big laughs as a result.
Benedetta is packed with gags, verbal and visual, that are both funny in their own right and help soften the very explicit sex scenes, which are played in a similar heightened tone to all the fervent craziness of the convent as Benedetta grows in power. It’s a tightrope that Verhoeven walks mostly expertly, though a genuinely horrible torture scene breaks the balance, an unfortunate but major misstep in a film that is otherwise a bloody but winking romp. As the fiery climax approaches, Verhoeven marshals some impressive set-pieces as forces from Florence arrive and clash with Benedetta’s faithful in Pescia.
‘Paul Verhoeven Lesbian Nun Movie’ is a phrase that will only ever conjure up particular image in your mind, and it’s kind of a joy that the director has absolutely no desire to surprise or wrongfoot you. This is a hilarious, trashy, boobs-obsessed slice of steamy historical smut, always ascending to further heights of mania as plagues and comets beset the land while the Machiavellian politics of the convent and the Catholic Church at large whirr away to bestow power and punishment. It’s pure Verhoeven, and you really wouldn’t have it any other way.