Benedetta review – Let’s get horny for Jesus!

Benedetta review – Let’s get horny for Jesus!

While it’s a smart idea to thematically tie sexual liberty with faith, and there are few filmmakers on the planet more capable of doing so than Paul Verhoeven, I can’t help but feel disappointed by his latest work, Benedetta. It’s a solid film to be sure, but in the wake of Elle, his deliciously dense thriller/character study, this undercooked, somewhat cheap looking piece of trashy melodrama comes in with a bang, but resonates only as a whisper. Sure, there are endless jaw-on-the-floor moments of absolute insanity (and really, that’s enough for me), but taken as a whole, Benedetta lacks punch.

Loosely based on the 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film follows Benedetta Carlini, a nun who has been a member of her convent ever since her father “donated” a large sum of money in exchange for her room/board/education. Yes, even back in the Renaissance era, the Catholic Church was primarily interested in fundraising. The convent is headed by a no-nonsense abbess (Charlotte Rampling), whose desire for power is exceeded only by her piety. When a young woman escapes an abusive relationship and seeks shelter within the convent, Benedetta convinces her father to make another expensive deal with the abbess in order to let this new novitiate into the fold. The abbess agrees, and soon after, Benedetta and the new girl, Bartolomea, start getting it on. A lot.

Yes, this is what we in the film world have been playfully referring to as “the horny nuns movie” and I’m sure you can understand why. But where this tale differs from schlocky exploitation (or spooky nun-sploitation) is in the application of sexual frankness. You see, whenever Benedetta gets all horny, she has profoundly moving visions of Christ. In these visions, Christ makes it explicitly clear that Benedetta should view all of her sexual exploits as occurring safely within the bonds of matrimony — bonds she shares with Christ himself. Naturally, homosexuality, miraculous visions, and a variety of other indicators have Benedetta being equally revered and despised by her colleagues, and the bulk of the film tracks the fallout from her controversial ascension.

Benedetta is a passion project that the great Paul Verhoeven has been brewing for quite some time. His passion shows through in every choice, but much like with Fincher’s Mank, it feels like it’s been in the oven for a bit too long. It’s still a delicious meal, but not quite the feast it is intended to be. Comparisons are being drawn to Verhoeven’s trash classic Showgirls, and it’s easy to see why. Both films balance sharp filmmaking with melodramatic acting and sexually explicit material, and both seek a viewer who can tell the difference between a choice and a mistake. You’ll remember that Showgirls was not well-loved upon release. It’s only through the passage of time that a wave of cult appreciation has given it the notoriety to be correctly reassessed, and it’s this same appreciation that Benedetta banks on. The difference, however, is that here in 2021, we know to bring a level of detachment to the experience outright — we don’t have to wait twenty years to learn how to read the movie.

Unfortunately, this weakens the material insofar as the wink and nod that Verhoeven masterfully employed in the past is now on the surface. Add to that the occasionally cheap look of the film (to be fair, it’s also just as often quite gorgeous), and some of the choices do begin to feel like errors. That said, Paulie V is a filmmaker to whom I freely offer the benefit of the doubt. I just wish that he either made the film a few years ago, or distanced himself enough from it to let his ideas feel fresh again.

It sounds like I’m ragging on the film, but I assure you this is just a sheen of disappointment that I’ve allowed to taint a very good movie. Benedetta is very good. There’s a lot being explored here regarding faith, pleasure, and sexuality, and in a world of increasing prudishness toward on-screen sex it’s downright revelatory for a movie to be so aggressively horny. Here in America, our Puritan roots still have us associating pleasure with sin, and for a film to make the case that our hard coded pleasures are actually proof of divinity is refreshing. Damn refreshing. God damn refreshing!

Also worth noting are the lead performances of Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia (Benedetta and Bartolomea, respectively). If this were the era of Showgirls we’d probably be tempted to think of this duo much like we did of Elizabeth Berkley so long ago — namely, that they are actresses who chose to take classless and salacious roles in order to get a leg up — but it would be as unfair and inaccurate now as it was then. Benedetta has no chance of working if the actors aren’t savvy and committed, and our leading ladies do not falter one bit.

As a thoughtful, entertaining, and salacious bit of historical sorta-non-fiction, Benedetta is success. As a parade of “holy shit I can’t believe what I’m seeing” it’s a home run. But as the fruits of a long-gestating passion project, Benedetta has been on the vine for a bit too long.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, Judith C. Brown, Pascal Bonitzer

Starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson

Not rated, 131 minutes

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