CAST: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Hervé Pierre, Louise Chevillotte, Guilaine Londez, Lauriane Riquet
RUNNING TIME: 131 mins
BASICALLY…: A 17th-century nun (Efira) is persecuted for embarking on a forbidden romantic affair…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Paul Verhoeven never does things by halves, does he? The provocative filmmaker, behind many modern cult classics from RoboCop to Basic Instinct to the delightful madness that is Showgirls, either goes all in with his vivid and shocking storytelling, no matter who it may shock and offend, or not at all, and almost always you’re bound to witness some absolutely bonkers yet supremely entertaining genre fare which only he could make. His latest film, Benedetta, fits the bill of a Paul Verhoeven movie perfectly: completely and utterly batshit, and yet kind of awesome at the same time.
The film sees Verhoeven, along with co-writer David Birke, dive into that most cherished of exploitation genres for the first time: that, of course, being Nunsploitation. Believe it or not, there used to be a time when B-movies used to take great pleasure in exploring the naughty, erotic and occasionally violent adventures of sexually-repressed convent nuns, which certainly provided some cheap entertainment for audiences back in the day looking for culturally taboo thrills. It is an exploitation genre which even Verhoeven’s Benedetta takes to heart, and then multiplies in that usual, borderline insane Verhoeven fashion which has made him such a fascinating cult director over the years.
Set mostly at a convent in Tuscany (where, amusingly, every single character speaks French; one of the many quirks supposedly added by the Dutch filmmaker) during the 17th century, a young nun named Benedetta (Virginie Efira) becomes renowned amongst her fellow sisters, and eventually the small town wherein her abbey resides, for apparently being able to communicate with Jesus himself through some vivid and disturbing visions. Benedetta’s apparent gift makes her a cherished and mystical figure in the eyes of many, but her notoriety is challenged by a new arrival to the convent, a young woman named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), for whom Benedetta can only suppress her true feelings for so long, and the two instigate a forbidden love affair.
Yes, this is definitely a Nunsploitation movie through and through, but it’s so fun to watch that the label doesn’t really have any negative effect on the final product whatsoever. Verhoeven completely embodies the genre’s sexually-charged conventions – horny nuns, religious imagery, and over-the-top villains like Charlotte Rampling’s cruel Abbess and Paul Lambert’s sadistic Nuncio – and then mixes in his own brand of off-kilter nuttiness for extra flavour, giving Benedetta the fascinating aura of insanity this true story deserves. This is, after all, a movie where the title character will suddenly have visions of being attacked by rapists, only for Jesus Christ himself to ride in on horseback, chop the brutes’ heads off with his sword, and then try to rape her himself. In another such instance, she imagines herself walking naked to Jesus as he’s nailed to the cross, lays her hands over his nailed ones, and then wake up with somehow the exact same puncture wounds on her hands, feet and waist. That isn’t even getting into what goes on in the “real” world, where things such as red luminous comets shoot across the sky over the abbey, and a sudden suicide shortly after that’s as overplayed as practically everything else. Then, there’s the makeshift dildo carved out of a Virgin Mary statuette, which is exactly as shocking and darkly hilarious as it sounds (the movie, it has to be said, is legitimately very funny in parts). It’s completely insane to describe, and yet it’s all so absorbing to watch, because it is doing such a grand job at remaining consistently entertaining without any down moments or stuff that could have been cut for time (its more than two-hour runtime manages to zoom by).
Sure, you can argue that Verhoeven and co-writer Birke take a number of creative liberties with the actual narrative, but in no way is this meant to be a detriment to the film. As with most Nunsploitation movies, including ones by classic exploitation filmmakers Bruno Mattei and Joe D’Amato, the truth is stretched to a point where it’s hard to call it historically accurate, but not too far for you not to completely buy the crazy historical world that has been constructed. While it’s probably unlikely that every single young nun in 17th century Italy looked like supermodels in habits (yet another Nunsploitation convention at work), Verhoeven uses that distortion to his advantage, with the nude bodies of lead actresses Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia – both excellent here, by the way, not to mention completely fearless – serving as necessary vessels for the slow unravelling of the titular character’s sexual repression, which could only be accomplished by unrealistically youthful representation. The film’s climax is also a study in how true historical fact barely matters when there is so much going on that can only be described – without spoilers, naturally – as wild and completely satisfying to the plot that Verhoeven has presented. The whole thing is almost at Tarantino levels of revisionist history, but Verhoeven sidesteps anything that would truly call into question his skills as both a provocative filmmaker and storyteller, always remaining consistent with his bonkers tone and, most crucially, never taking himself too seriously.
Naturally, this movie won’t be for everyone. Those who want a more nuanced, even respectful, take on the historical tale of Benedetta will find plenty to criticise with its overt sex and violence, not to mention its juvenile humour (there are two major scenes in this movie that involve people being within the vicinity of poop, one of which being during the first five minutes). This was, perhaps, inevitable. After all, Paul Verhoeven almost never lets his guard down when making some of the most memorably bonkers genre films of the past number of decades, so anyone thinking he’d soften up when tackling faith-based material had better get thee to a nunnery for their shrewd naivety.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Benedetta is an absolutely bonkers but thoroughly entertaining Nunsploitation movie from director Paul Verhoeven, who brings his fascinating flavour of insanity to a real-life story that deserves to have such madness applied to it, resulting in something that is not only highly provocative, and most likely unappealing to more conservative crowds, but also a funny, dramatic, violent, erotic, and all around fun slice of exploitation cinema.
Benedetta will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 15th April 2022.