Paul Verhoeven back in shape with ‘Benedetta’
It’s unlikely any other director will ever match Paul Verhoeven’s wild 10-year run from 1987’s “RoboCop” to 1997’s “Starship Troopers.” So maybe we can forgive the horny old Dutch provocateur, now in his 80s, although it looks like he took the script for his latest film from a porno. While a title card indicates that “Benedetta” is based on true events, the ensuing narrative sounds less like a 17th-century tale of religious miracles and more like a raunchy 3 a.m. Cinemax selection.
One day, at a convent in Pescia, Italy, a spirited (and often naked) nun named Benedetta (Virginie Efira) intercedes to save a ragged young woman, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who is being treated like an animal. By his father. /husband. The rude young woman moves into the cell next door to Benedetta where she learns the proper way to worship God and defecate indoors.
Their attraction is warm, heavy and immediate, and it goes without saying that the women’s lustful sapphism is observed through a hole in the wall by the icy, voyeuristic abbess ironically named Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Besides frowning at the sweat-soaked passion of her proteges, she’s a tough businesswoman. Felicita barks at a benefactor: “Are you going to haggle like a Jew for more than 25 gold scudi?!”
Throughout her life, Benedetta has been shamed for her passion – her sisters are always hissing things like “Your worst enemy is your body” and it’s frowned upon when our heroine can’t stop licking her chest. a life-size sculpture of Mary. Benedetta dreams of a sexy, androgynous Jesus, and yells funny double meanings like “I’m coming Lord, I’m coming!” while the Savior pushes back the vipers that slip on his skirts. Yet Benedetta’s sacred visions seem quite real to the villagers when she wakes up with the signs of the stigmata on her palms and feet.
Thanks to the fame conferred by her probable canonization, Benedetta moved into private apartments where she could spend more time with Bartolomea. If you remember this film for anything, it will be the scene in which the ladies remodel Benedetta’s beloved statuette of the Blessed Virgin and use it for far more wanton purposes than intended. Their jaw-dropping romance (and the possibility of them faking the whole thing with self-inflicted wounds) drives nun Christina (Louise Chevillotte) mad with rage. She engages in usual hitches with volleys of “Fuck!” lobbed back and forth as Felicita watches.
As an exploration of religious bigotry, the film’s tone oscillates between the slightly obnoxious chastity of Powell and Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” and the utter depravity of Ken Russell’s “The Devils.” Unfortunately, unlike those earlier films, “Benedetta” carries a textureless CGI sheen and the actors, starting with Efira’s flat star turn, are nothing special. The possible exception is Lambert Wilson, a repulsive papal nuncio who arrives near the end, dragging with him a band of plague-infected Vatican cave pals.
As bodice-ripping fever sweeps through the cloisters, the nuncio leads us to our inevitable, searing climax at the stake. While not as deep as the stigmata, the film’s corny horndog provocations are worth at least a chuckle.