Benedetta is Paul Verhoeven’s latest film about a clout-chasing novice nun (Virginie Efira) in 17th century Italy who starts an affair with another nun (Daphne Patakia), inspired by the nonfiction book ‘Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy’ by historian Judith C. Brown. When it premiered at Cannes this year, everyone was falling over themselves, describing it as a subversive and powerfully erotic melodrama, with some even declaring it as Showgirls meets Sapphic Holy Orders.
What’s not to love from that ‘Father forgive them for they have scissored’ premise, one that seems tailor-made for the veteran Dutch provocateur? Plenty, as it turns out, and initial fawning superlatives were nothing more than attention-grabbing quotes designed to woo PR teams. That’s not to say that Benedetta is a complete failure, but it’s far cry from riotous romp or the daringly satirical examination of faith and patriarchal organised religion it could have been. Yes, it features a dildo whittled from a Virgin Mary statuette, but a potentially splintery pocket rocket doesn’t make the film a fittingly gripping or provocative chronicle of Benedetta Carlini’s incredible life.
Instead, Benedetta is that rarest of thing from the celebrated director of Basic Instinct and Elle: an oddly dull film that’s hard to outright champion or detest, leaving you numb and with the hardly-hot take that Charlotte Rampling, who plays the convent’s Mother Superior, is wonderful in everything she does. The only thing that makes me want to love it more is the fact that certain puritanical American factions have taken to picketing the film à la Father Ted, decrying its anti-Catholic and “blasphemous” ways. Sadly, beyond the peripheral joy of seeing a moronic few protesting a film they don’t realise it’s actually based on a true story, what remains are the probable odds that audiences would have much more fun (re-)watching or discovering 1970s nunsploitation flicks like Ken Russell’s The Devils, Domenico Paolella’s The Nun and The Devil, Norifumi Suzuki’s School of the Holy Beast or basking in the ethereal glow of the seminal ’93 classic Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Benedetta / D: Paul Verhoeven (France, Netherlands, 2021) with Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling. Starts December 02.