Blasphemy and boobs are in vogue in “Benedetta.” Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature derives from the true story of Benedetta Cardini, a nun tried and eventually imprisoned for engaging in a sexual relationship with another nun. The film’s historical setting and bleak religious tableaus, however, are not an incursion on its ability to be confrontational. Rather, “Benedetta” doubles down on much of Verhoeven’s usual provocative flair: affinities for sex and violence, indictments of ruling class constructions of power and always a generous peppering of full-frontal nudity.
The film’s subjects are, at first glance, entirely incongruous with the highly contemporary figures that comprise Verhoeven’s previous work. But perhaps it is the film’s austere setting that makes it all the more befitting of his power-critical themes. The convent functions as a nearly complete portrait of corruption, delusion, grift and graft — all that’s left for Verhoeven to do is some light shading to bring Catholicism’s dark underbelly into starker view.
The eponymous Benedetta emerges as a young girl (Elena Plonka) en route to a convent in Pescia, Tuscany, where she is set to become a nun. Equal parts precocious and pious, her most valued possession is a figurine of the Virgin Mary, which she is swiftly asked to turn over upon arrival. “Your body is your worst enemy, you’d do better to not feel too good in it,” the abbess (Charlotte Rampling) tells Benedetta when she is unsatisfied with her convent-issued garments. Anyone familiar with Verhoeven’s work will be rolling their eyes already.
As a young adult, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) encounters the novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Bartolomea’s traumatic circumstances are, predictably, not enough to absolve her of payment to the convent, so Benedetta’s family shoulders the cost. Throughout the film’s first act, their bond deepens and takes on new shapes; Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship morphs from mentor and mentee to caretaker and convalescent to, finally, lesbian lovers.
Where Benedetta is adept at histrionics and deception, Bartolomea is skilled in the realm of arts and crafts. In this case, she whittles Benedetta’s beloved Virgin Mary statuette into a homemade dildo — a transformation as metaphorical as it is gauche. Lust is made all the more palpable and corporeal when sealed in the whitewashed walls of the nunnery, illustrative of the clash between organic desire and the stifling nature of Manichaean faith.
It is this dichotomy between human nature and the stringent moral pylons of the Catholic church that forms the crux of (and impetus for) Verhoeven’s satire. This satire pushes the boundaries of his work, often taking a sharp left turn into absurdist vulgarity; CGI snakes, a castrated Jesus and a lactation jumpscare each make their way into the film. However crass, Verhoeven’s absurdism always serves a purpose and defines the contours of a deeply deluded populace.
Hypocrisy is predictably the church’s central vice, one that the film spends ample time focusing on. Malicious manifestations of power are notably embodied by women and men. In the gynocratic atmosphere of the convent, moral strictures are handed down by the abbess, who wields her authority in ethically dubious and, in the case of Benedetta’s tenure, sadistic ways. Outside Pescia’s city walls, the seedy Nuncio’s (Lambert Wilson) religious posturing is even more deplorable. Benedetta’s schemes call into question which version of faith is more true: the top-down moral imperatives enforced by the church, or the theatrical subterfuge of a singular nun. “Lies” — the simple last utterance of Sister Jacopa (Guilaine Londez) — applies to both arbiters of religious dogma.
“Benedetta” is exceptional for layering themes that construct multiple flashpoints of modern culture, while chronicling a mercurial yet touching love story. Verhoeven’s subversiveness is almost unilaterally equated with vulgarity — his ability to titillate or elicit a squirm with the “nuns gone wild” of it all. However, “Benedetta” offers a different kind of subversiveness; the film is both shattering and serious upon close viewing.