Following his latest brush with prestige in 2016, when he won a Golden Globe for Elle, Paul Verhoeven has floated back down to earth to bless us with another of his hot-button “realist” dramas, the outré religious satire Benedetta. For those of us who have been bloviating uselessly for years about what his unmade Jesus film could have been, this is the next-best (perhaps even better?) project. Clearly directed by a horny, 83-year-old history buff who still chuckles at fart and poop jokes, Benedetta is a sly and smoothly directed late-career film teeming with very Verhoeven moments and references. And as evidenced by his typically no-nonsense press conference at Cannes, he has already used some of his favorite talking points to promote the film. In addition to his usual response to tired questions about his sex scenes (he’s from Europe where people get naked), he remains steadfast in his insistence that his films are “realist” and fact-based. Irritated by one journalist’s use of the word “blasphemous,” he argued that Benedetta is no such thing because it is based on events that actually happened, as detailed in Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. He’s right—for instance, according to Brown’s research, a statue of the Madonna did fall on the young Benedetta once as she was praying—she thought the statue wished to kiss her, and reached out to its large, exposed breast with puckered lips . . . well, it’s not exactly a documentary, is it?
In fact, this is not the only Verhoeven film in which his lead character is horny for Jesus. That encounter with the busty Madonna statue immediately calls to mind one of Verhoeven’s Dutch films, The 4th Man (1983), in which the lead character gazes at a scantily clad statue of Christ on the cross but imagines instead the hunky, oiled-up man he is obsessed with. It’s a scene that was inspired by Verhoeven’s own experience: as an adolescent, he once gazed at a statue of Jesus and fantasized about the male form. He was very straightforward in recounting this experience in an early interview, as he believes that sexual desire is biological, natural, and inevitable. This purposefully rational perspective supports both his critique of the Catholic church as a punitive, sex-negative establishment, as well as Jesus’s proclamations through Benedetta that sex and love (especially between consenting nuns) is without shame.
A dedicated researcher who published a book about the historical life of Jesus in 2008, Verhoeven is often dismissive of biblical films that rely heavily on the mythological aspects of religious faith, such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc., presenting those aspects in Benedetta with a heaping dose of ambiguity. Like Nomi Malone of Showgirls (1995), Benedetta has strong survival instincts and an addiction to the limelight, but her incessant ambiguity is more in line with Catherine Tramell of Basic Instinct (1992), keeping the audience guessing as to the sincerity of her faith. Is a suspicious pottery shard a damning piece of evidence, like an ice pick under the bed? Is Benedetta orchestrating events behind the scenes, like Catherine Tramell the crime novelist, or a director staging a passion play? How does she get her special “possession” voice to sound like that? It’s possible Verhoeven himself would say that it’s all a hoax, that religion is theater and history doesn’t lie, but he’s not that cynical or didactic as to lay it out neatly in one of his films. Benedetta has no shortage of movie magic, including a few canny visual references to other great nun movies. It’s a fantastically shrewd, grotesque satire, and so very Verhoeven, down to the final shot.
Benedetta is now playing in New York City.