A film by Paul Verhoeven with too little sex? Especially too little carefree sex? It turns out it can. He showed himself Benedetta inspired by the book based on true events Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986) by Judith Brown, and the buzz of porn and blasphemy sped up the film. That is, of course, because provocateur Verhoeven eagerly draws on the rich history of campy visual language from art and film history that has arisen over time around the holy trinity of religion, power and sexuality.
Verhoeven’s teasing is apparent, for example, from a much-discussed sex scene with a statue of Mary and dildo since the premiere. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but is almost a smokescreen in the larger context of the film, showing the similarities between sexual lust, lust for power and religious ecstasy. The dialogue-rich and fairly classically filmed Benedetta is more serious and political than the flirtation with the style conventions from, for example, the ‘nunsploitation’ genre suggests. Since the French philosopher Michel Foucault History of Sexuality (1976-2018), there hasn’t been such an exciting essay about how in Western capitalist societies institutions like the church, prisons, and psychiatry have made sexuality so associated with repression and guilt. In Benedetta the explicit scenes provoke the viewer to examine their own moral presuppositions and inhibitions.
Also read: ‘Paul Verhoeven was accused of non-sploitation in Cannes with his feature film ‘Benedetta’. What is that?’
abuse of power
Brown based her book on the 17th-century Italian Mother Superior Benedetta Carlini mainly on ecclesiastical research reports to determine whether she was a mystic or a mystificator. The facts did not speak in her favor. She had a sexual relationship with a younger nun, the uninhibited shepherd girl Bartolomea in the film, and abused her position to keep that relationship a secret. To what extent she herself thought that her behavior was justified, the film leaves open.
Also read: The interview with director Paul Verhoeven and lead actress Virginie Efira.
The fact that the rationalist Verhoeven does not believe in Benedetta’s visions (including erotic dreams about Jesus), miracles and stigmata, does not rule out that the enigmatic Benedetta was a victim of both her own delusions and the patriarchal power structures of the Catholic Church. Just like Isabelle Huppert in Verhoevens She (2016) Benedetta, played by the Belgian actress Virginie Efira, is someone who decides to use existing power structures to her advantage. The motives for this are complex: revenge and lust go hand in hand. And power always corrupts.
Ultimately, it is natural for the 83-year-old director to expose (sexual) hypocrisy. The fact that he goes back to a lesbian love story for this is more instrumental (scandal success assured) than that he seems genuinely interested in the rehabilitation of an erased history and the making visible of homosexual stories, as Céline Sciamma did in Portrait of the girl on fire (2019).
Verhoeven talks regarding Benedetta much about the importance of an uninhibited view of sexuality. And at the beginning of the film, the moments of religious and erotic surrender are still playful and full of wonder, which later changes into increasingly tense situations. How problematic are we today, for example, Verhoeven’s view of sexuality in Turks fruit (1973) can also find it, you miss that open-mindedness in Benedetta. The intimacy from the beginning is soon countered by an admittedly clever reversal of Hitchcock’s from Psycho (1960) well-known peeping hole scene, but one that suggests that free sexuality is almost impossible. We do not view Benedetta’s and Bartolomea’s lovemaking from the perspective of the voyeur, but move from the bed straight to the lurking eye. There is no innocence in this movie. Not with the characters and not with the viewer. Verhoeven struggles in Benedetta with the original sin of cinema.