The ecstatic agonies (or is it the agonizing ecstasies?) that have become the signature of legendary Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, are on full display in his historical religious epic, “Benedetta,” a tale of sex, suffering and the sacrament. In Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book, “Immodest Acts,” detailing the life story of Sister Benedetta Carlini, Verhoeven has found a vessel for his interest in hypocritical systems of power and the ways that irrepressible sexuality can threaten to burn down those structures from the inside out.
The outre “Benedetta” feels like the unholy love child of Verhoeven’s own “Black Book,” the tale of a Dutch Jewish woman (played by Carice van Houten) who seduced Nazis in service of the Resistance during World War II (and endured the humiliating torture that ensued), and Ken Russell’s controversial “The Devils,” in which Oliver Reed plays a priest who drives a convent of nuns mad with lust, and finds himself the subject of religious persecution for pursuing a loving relationship with a woman.
Verhoeven, who adapts Brown’s book with co-writer David Birke, positions the character of Benedetta as a powerfully commanding figure, but also a woman subject to the rules of patriarchal systems in early Renaissance Italy. Both her spirituality and sexuality, which become inextricably intertwined, are placed on trial and sadistically punished by the cynical powers that be of the Catholic Church in Counter-Reformation Italy. Belgian actress Virginie Efira gives a wholly self-possessed performance as the pious young nun who is spiritually transformed by her vivid and bloody visions of Jesus Christ, as well as her scandalous sexual awakening with a young novice, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia).
Pledged to a convent of Theatine nuns in Pescia by her parents, Benedetta takes the veil as a child, and is taught from a young age that her body is her enemy. As a young woman, she begins to have hysterical visions that result in bloody stigmata erupting from her hands and feet. Thanks to these “miracles,” she’s elected the new abbess, seen as the protector of Pescia against the bubonic plague that beats at their gates. Bartolomea, who has sought sanctuary at the convent from the sexual abuse of her father and brothers, takes an instant, eager interest in her new friend, and helps her to unlock the pleasures of their bodies, which Benedetta sees as a manifestation of God’s universal love.
This frank eroticism is juxtaposed against the body horror of self-flagellation, sickness and studious suffering, as well as the torture that the Nuncio of Florence (Lambert Wilson) inflicts upon these women once he comes to town. Bodies, plainly presented in all their pain and glory, have long been a subject of Verhoeven’s cinematic fascinations, from “Showgirls” to “Starship Troopers,” and recently, he’s explored the darker, more taboo side of sexual politics, in “Black Book” and “Elle.” All of these ideas come together in the anarchic “Benedetta,” a sexually frank, unruly, and, at times, unapologetically funny nunsploitation flick, cloaked in the aesthetic of a prestige historical drama.
What “Benedetta” shares with “The Devils” is a deeply ingrained cynicism about the Catholic Church, the pomp and pageantry underpinned by the banal bureaucracy of greed, as embodied by the shrewd, skeptical Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling), whom Benedetta unseats, and the slimy sexism of the Nuncio, outfitted in his silly hat. Verhoeven so thoroughly tears down the church in “Benedetta,” presenting a utopian counter vision of an unbridled and sensual feminine spirituality as an alternative to its patriarchal hypocrisy, that it’s no wonder the film has attracted protests from Catholics, which means he’s definitely doing something right.
3 stars (out of 4)
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2:11
Where to watch: In theaters Friday
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