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How funny is Benedetta meant to be? Is it a serious film examining the mindset of religious people of a different time, or a nunsploitation flick straining every sinew to get its stars out of their clothes and comically at it?

It’s an adaptation of Judith C Brown’s book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Reinaissance Italy. But tellingly, Gerard Soeteman, who worked on the original, never-realised adaptation with director Paul Verhoeven in the 1980s, had his name removed from the credits when he realised which way Verhoeven and new screenwriter David Birke were taking the material for the 2021 version.

In bawdy, winkingly vulgar style, not unlike Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, the story follows a clever, self-possessed young girl into a convent in 17th-century Italy. Eighteen years later and fully grown (and now played by Virginie Efira), the young Benedetta’s austere life of poverty, chastity and obedience is regularly being punctuated by visions of Jesus Christ. In one, as she runs towards him ecstatically, she shouts “j’arrive” (“I’m coming”). In another, Jesus slays snakes threatening Benedetta and then kisses her on the mouth. No need for Freudian interpretation of these dreams, Verhoeven and Birke have done it all for us.

Benedetta’s dangerously sublimated sex drive – “your worst enemy is your body” she is told on first arriving at the convent – is cranked further into action when new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives and is put in her care. A sexual relationship is soon in full swing. As if that weren’t enough, the stigmatic wounds of the crucified Christ also start appearing on Benedetta’s body. Whether sent by God or inflicted by Benedetta herself is left half open.

These wounds are the meat in a stew of intrigue involving the convent’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling), the abbess’s jealous daughter (Louise Chevillotte), a local provost hungry for power (Olivier Rabourdin) and the regional papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who on learning of the goings-on at the convent – and he doesn’t know the half of it – decides to come down hard on Benedetta and bring the nonsense to a stop.

The nuns at work, weaving
The nuns at work, weaving

As if this weren’t enough, bubonic plague is ravaging the land, and is threatening to arrive at the convent of Pescia at any minute. Oh, and there’s a comet in the sky, which is surely a portent for something. Baroque and roll!

This story is all told with a typical Verhoeven focus on bodily functions. A fart here, a pregnant woman squeezing milk out of her tit there, a statuette of the Virgin Mary carved into a dildo, Benedetta and Bartolomea sitting side by side on the earth closet taking a dump together… plus more naked flesh than seems strictly necessary, even to tell a story about two nuns ravishing each other each night while their fellow sisters sleep.

Even for the director of the notoriously nudy Showgirls, it all comes over as excessive. But while the visuals tug in one direction, the screenplay heads in the other, insisting that this is an earnest undertaking. The acting, too, is straight-down-the line-serious, and while Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia get most of the camera’s attention, Charlotte Rampling is impressive as the haughty-to-humbled abbess.

The same cannot quite be said of the cinematography, which hangs somewhere in space unsure whether it’s meant to be a hard-focus depiction of an actual reality, or the ambiguous soft focus of soft porn. Anne Dudley’s score is also all over the place, devolving regularly to little more than religious vamping… a de profundis from the heart of a bewildered composer.

At one level it’s all great fun, even if the balance of the film is upset by the nudity, some of which is straight-up ridiculous – why, for example, are Benedetta and Bartolomea out wandering naked in a field towards the end? This isn’t the nudity-as-power of other Verhoeven films like Basic Instinct, Showgirls or Black Books, but something else. And while it’s possible to see the whole thing as a big satire/pastiche of the 1970s arthouse/soft porn crossover, there’s also the strong suspicion that Verhoeven’s dirty old man has simply won out over the serious (if playful) auteur.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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