'Benedetta' review: Paul Verhoeven's blasphemous lesbian tale doesn't hold back
Courtesy of IFC
Don’t expect anything remotely tasteful in Paul Verhoeven’s horny and blasphemous “Benedetta,” a tale of lust, sacrilege, and sin unfurled during 17th century Italy. Based on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 novel about the first known lesbian trial ever recorded, Verhoeven’s magnetic drama rides a slippery slope as he bashes the Catholic chuch and isn’t afraid to show the viewer a wooden Virgin Mary, that’s been, uh, reshaped into a dildo, penetrete the main character. Remember, this is the director who gave us the schlock masterpiece “Showgirls,” but the 82-year old isn’t trying to be morally responsible (the Church has already protested the release of the film which is the best publicity anyone could ask for) and himself, along with screenwriter David Birke ride the wave and manage to start a conversation around body autonomy and sexuality. Which might be the biggest shocker of the movie.
Defined in some circles as “the lesbian nun movie” which, true, but “Benedetta” has more to say than two convent girls fooling around in the sheets. The film presents an overtly satirical view of the church’s greed and unilateral authority, exemplified in the opening scene when a family negotiates with Charlotte Rampling’s stern Abbess about their daughter becoming married to Christ in her convent (“you’d haggle like a jew for that”). The next scene, young Bendetta is told: “Your worst enemy is your body. It is best not to feel too at home in it.” What sound advice for a pre-teen!
Fast foward 18 years and Benedetta (now played with unwavering commitment by Virginie Efira) is starting to have feelings for Bartholomea (Daphne Patakia), a local runaway the Abbess took in for a hefty price. There’s an immediate spark between the two, a slight S&M attraction brewing when alone in their chambers, though Bendetta has regular visions about Jesus on the cross (without a penis) soaked in blood and snakes. In other words, just another day at the office for Verhoeven.
Thanks to these ‘visions,’ Benedetta rises within the convent and becomes the current Abbess, stoking the flames between Rampling’s demoted Sister Felicta and her daughter Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte). It creates a fun triangle as the trio chew up lines of distasteful, snarky, dialogue as Benedetta becomes the sole beacon of hope within a community ravaged by disease. That doesn’t stop Felicta, with years of connections at her disposal, from calling in a favor: the sniveling Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson in a commanding supporting performance), the judge, jury and executioner for the church determined to coerce a confession out of either Bendetta or Bartholomea who’s methods aren’t devoid of torture and clitoridectomy’s.
As you can see, nothing is off limits for Verhoeven’s skewering of religious practices even if some of the jabs feel obvious and safe in comparison to his more provocative works. Still, “Benedetta” is fresh and Efira turns in a demanding, vulnerable performance where audiences have to ascertain her true methods. Is she lying about these “visions” or just spewing bullshit? “Benedetta,” whether you like it or not, brings out the best and worst qualities of a director who could care less about offending anyone.
BENEDETTA opens in select theaters Friday, December 3rd and debuts on VOD December 21st.