For a movie in which an adult nun’s childhood statuette of the Virgin Mary is carved into a dildo and then used on her, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta is surprisingly unsurprising. In some ways, it encapsulates the director’s best and worst instincts. It might be his most personal film, a genuine effort to understand the connection between two of his key obsessions, spiritual faith and human impulse. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that the film wants to outrage us into a response, but its supposed transgressions often feel tired and pro forma. It’s been years since Verhoeven left Hollywood, but there’s still enough Hollywood in him, it seems, to undercut his film’s sincerity.
Once upon a time, the one thing you could never say about a Paul Verhoeven film was that it felt tired. After rising to fame in the Netherlands, the director conquered American cinema by bringing both devil-may-care vigor and a European sense of irony to the types of films that in another timeline might have been standard-issue studio sleaze, sex thrillers and sci-fi shoot-’em-ups. He’s become more of a prestige provocateur since returning to Europe, and Benedetta, at least on its surface, seems to combine the more somber and reflective Verhoeven of recent years with the horny pop auteur he used to be. It’s the story of Benedetta Carlini (played as a grown-up by Virginie Efira), a devout girl who claims to commune with God and is entrusted to a convent in Pescia, Tuscany. Based loosely on a true story, and adapted partly from Judith Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film charts the adult Benedetta’s rise to power in her cloistered world while she discovers her forbidden sexuality.
It’s not a tale of innocence lost, however, and that’s maybe the most interesting thing about it. The world around Benedetta is already morally compromised before she gets there, as we see in the cynical haggling over her dowry between her father and the convent’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling) in the film’s early scenes. The girl, however, is pure in her devotion, and even finds something spiritual in her first pangs of desire. Or is it the other way around? Her first night there, as she prays to a large statue of the Virgin Mary, the statue collapses on her; Benedetta, finding herself face-to-face with the fallen Virgin’s bare breast, starts to suck on it. To her, this seems to be both an instinctive and a pious act.
Much of the film involves the torrid, complicated affair between the grown-up Benedetta and Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a young peasant woman who is accepted into the convent after she runs into it trying to hide from her abusive father. On Bartolomea’s first night, she and Benedetta bond over a nice comfy shit they take together in the latrines, as Bartolomea marvels at the luxury of having a place to sit while taking a dump and Benedetta shows her how to wipe her ass with the piles of straw provided them. (Look, nobody’s ever accused Verhoeven of being subtle.)
The earthy, early scenes of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship are probably the film’s high point, with the wide-eyed Patakia bringing a hungry, animalistic energy to her interactions with the reserved, angel-faced Efira, whose Benedetta finds in herself both the urge to embrace and punish this woman. Benedetta’s occasional visions of Jesus (here seen as a hunky stud who will slay any number of snakes with his beautiful sword while Benedetta contemplates and responds to Bartolomea’s advances) suggest an attempt to reconcile the initial tension between desire and the divine. Benedetta is told that communing with Jesus is a joyful event in the same breath that she is told it requires a great deal of suffering. Suffering and joy at the same time? Finding God isn’t all that different from the unbearable pangs of carnal desire, it seems.
The fundamental mystery about Benedetta lies in her supposed mysticism. Was she really talking to Jesus? Was she really experiencing stigmata, or was it all a ruse staged with a well-concealed shard of glass? And what about that booming, authoritative (and apparently male) voice she adopts in her reveries? Was she a seer or a charlatan? By actually showing us her early visions of Christ, Verhoeven seems at first to accept Benedetta’s divinity at face value. Later scenes, however, aren’t so certain. At times, Benedetta herself seems unsure. Maybe there’s something here about the way the certainty of youth gives way to the ambiguity and confusion of adulthood?
There are some great ideas here, but they eventually get muddied by the actual story Verhoeven is trying to tell. He’s clearly enjoying depicting the political machinations surrounding these characters. He’s also clearly enjoying staging the sex scenes between Bartolomea and Benedetta. But the increasingly porny qualities of such moments — while certainly, uh, compelling — weirdly undercut the sincerity of what he seems to be trying to say. Especially since he also clearly intends to shock us, and it’s harder to shock us with a story like this once it starts to slip into something closer to the slick vernacular of modern-day erotica. As Benedetta lurches on, it’s hard not to feel like the director is losing track of all the balls he’s tossed in the air. He retains the showmanship of his Hollywood years, the embrace of the sensational, but not the vitality. That’s not always a bad thing — the patience and simplicity of many filmmakers’ later works is something to cherish — but the missing energy hasn’t been replaced by wisdom or clarity. The messiness eventually starts to grate.
Now, this is probably the point at which Verhoeven diehards and those of us who are merely occasional admirers will part ways. This director has spent his whole career making us wonder about his intentions while somehow — somehow — also proving himself the bluntest of artists. So don’t be surprised if we wind up arguing for years over whether the increasingly chaotic nature of Benedetta is a mistake or exactly what its auteur intended. I suspect he wouldn’t want it any other way.
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