FILM

Provocateur Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Benedetta’ Envisions Nuns Going Wild

Seeking to appall the church and grab headlines, the Dutch director revels in hormonal explosions and the heated attempts to stop them

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As a good little boy in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, I grew up with a wonderful, grounded nun for an aunt, but also some scarily abusive “penguins” (as we derisively called them) screaming the Bible at us every Wednesday at catechism training. That unholy schism of mixed habits must have had something to do with the way I’ve always embraced two wildly disparate genres of nun films. I love sweet, glowing ones like The Song of Bernadette (1943), with saintly Jennifer Jones getting a personal visitation from the Virgin Mary, and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), with Ingrid Bergman thrilled to learn she has some awful disease; it means she’s being transferred to another locale because of her health issues, not because they don’t like her. Conversely, I totally worship Black Narcissus (1947), featuring a horny, crazed nun steaming up the Himalayas, and Killer Nun (1979), with sexpot Anita Ekberg drugging, shtupping, slaying, and only occasionally praying.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure which of the two genres Benedetta fits into. Based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown, and directed by the attention-grabbing Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Elle), it’s a fever dream of erotic visions, bubonic plague fears, and sapphic martyrdom. This is a far cry from 1966’s The Trouble With Angels, with cute little Hayley Mills making life pesky for head penguin Roz Russell—and yes, I loved that one too! 

Virginie Efira (once a Belgian children’s show host) gamely plays the title character, who was sold into an Italian nunnery as a child and who is starting to act up, as she envisions Jesus (a mighty-white Jonathan Couzinié), develops stigmata, and practically speaks in tongues. So it’s only natural that she should replace Mother Superior Charlotte Rampling—another generation’s decadent temptress—as the big cheese of the place. We’ve already gone way beyond all the previously noted movies combined, chutzpah-wise, and have now entered a mix of Agnes of God (the 1985 potboiler about a nun whose baby may or may not be the result of an immaculate conception) and The Devils, Ken Russell’s 1971 camp melodrama, which—like Benedetta—dabbles in 17th-century religious repression, with a focus on hormonal explosions and the heated attempts to stop them. Verhoeven’s film (in French, with subtitles) throws in bowel movements, self-flagellation, genital torture, fingering, and girl-on-girl sex with a Virgin Mary statue as dildo. My eyeballs spun like the silver balls on top of holy water sprinklers as the Dutch provocateur trotted out this carefully judged array of blasphemous outrages, obviously designed to appall the church and grab headlines while titillating males, both straight and gay. (And it’s all allegedly somewhat sort of based on a true story, of course.)

It seems to me that, though a woman wrote the source material, it’s mostly men who get off on the idea of kinky convents. The premise lets them fantasize that, left to their own devices, women must resort to lots of nude commingling and desperate drama-queen antics. Without a lot of guys around, they just go wild, right? But of course, men do come into the plot here—specifically papal emissary Le Nonce (a suitably leering Lambert Wilson), who tries to break up all the fun with his hatey hypocrisy. 

As the accusations and recriminations fly, there are so many twists that Benedetta eventually becomes a half-naked Joan of Arc who has to face recriminations for her stigmata and sex acts. I was appalled by the prospect of her burning bush before realizing that I love this sort of thing. Benedetta is just the kind of high-class trash that can make me a believer again.   ❖

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