Paul Verhoeven’s new film “Benedetta” is a decidedly salacious period drama peppered with some nudity, violence, and cynicism. Although it is relatively less wild, violent, and sensational compared to many of Verhoeven’s notable works, the movie is still another provocative work of his, and, although observing its main characters from the distance during my viewing, I actually enjoyed several blatantly vulgar moments wrapped inside its amusingly sanctimonious attitude.
At the beginning, the movie, which is set in the 17th century Italy, shows us the early life of a nun named Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira). When she was very young, her rich merchant father sent her to the abbey of a content in a small town of Tuscany, and we get a moment of sardonic black humor as her father and the Abbess, played by Charlotte Rampling, come to have some conflict on how much he has to pay for her daughter being accepted into the abbey. No matter how much he tries to persuade her, the Abbess remains unflappably no-nonsense as before, and Benedetta’s father eventually agrees to accept her conditions.
Although the rest of her life will be stuck in the abbey forever, young Benedetta is quite eager to devote herself to her God, and, as reflected by the opening scene, she also seems to have some genuine spiritual connection with her God. During her first night in the abbey, a strange incident happens, and the Abbess and many other nuns in the abbey are naturally baffled even though they just put aside their bafflement in the end.
When Benedetta grows up to be a young woman 18 years later, there comes an unexpected change into the abbey. While she is spending her time with the Abbess and her visiting parents, a shabby peasant girl suddenly comes in the abbey for getting anyone to help her free from her abusive father. Because she instantly takes a pity on her, Benedetta persuades her parents to get this poor peasant girl to be allowed into the abbey, and Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) soon becomes the new member of the convent.
Things go well during next several days, but it turns out that Bartolomea cannot repress her wild free spirit well. She and Benedetta initially get along well with each other, and we get another naughty moment to tickle you due to its scatological humor, but then Benedetta experiences something quite thrilling when Bartolomea approaches to her a bit too closely while nobody is watching around them.
As already shown from a series of dream scenes which feel as sacrilegious as you can expect from Verhoeven, Benedetta has developed a sort of religious mania inside her, and that becomes quite more serious after that incident of hers with Bartolomea. At first, she becomes quite vicious to Bartolomea during one certain scene which will make you wince for a good reason, and then she is subsequently thrown into a bout of inexplicable hysteria at one night.
And that is the point where the story becomes more deranged than before. Besides her increasingly serious fits, Benedetta also often shows something which suggests that she is actually a saint chosen by God, and nearly everyone around her begins to believe her words without hesitation. After all, things have been pretty gloomy for everyone inside and outside the abbey due to a spreading plague epidemic, and Benedetta soon comes to get considerable influence over the abbey to the displeasure of the Abbess.
While Benedetta and the Abbess eventually clash more with each other after one devastating incident happens during one rather ominous night, the screenplay by Verhoeven and his co-writer David Birke, which is based on Judith C. Brown’s nonfiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”, also focuses on the growing romantic relationship between Benedetta and Bartolomea. Once Benedetta gets the full control over the abbey later in the story, she and Bartolomea heedlessly throw themselves into their love and passion, and Verhoeven does not disappoint us at all in case of their expected sex scene. In addition, the movie also pays some attention to a little special present from Bartolomea, and that is certainly another big laugh for us.
Of course, the situation inevitably becomes quite serious with the entrance of the character played by Lambert Wilson, who has a nasty little fun as a haughty dude quite willing to punish our two lesbian lovers by any means necessary. As a result, we are served with a torture scene which is thankfully presented with some admirable restraint, and then there inevitably comes a big dramatic moment of good old burning-at-the-stake.
Even around that point, we still maintain some distance from all of the main characters in the story, but the movie continues to hold our attention thanks to Verhoeven’s competent handling of story and characters, and his main cast members are fearless as willingly going along with his sardonic approach. Although her character is often a bit too elusive to sympathize with, Virginie Efira is still compelling while complemented well by Daphne Patakia’s unadorned forthright acting, and Wilson and Rampling have each own moment to shine as the other crucial parts of the story.
Overall, “Benedetta” is one or two steps down from Verhoeven’s better works including “Black Book” (2006) and “Elle” (2016), but it is still a fairly interesting work thanks to the commendable efforts from Verhoeven and his main cast members. I must confess that I was a bit sleepy during its first 30 minutes, but I soon became less sleepy as gleefully following its story and characters, and I am glad to report that Verhoeven is still a dirty (and talented, of course) old filmmaker even at present.