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God bless Paul Verhoeven. The provocateur set his sights this year on classic Catholic imagery, subverting and challenging the structures of religion in his daring “Benedetta,” now playing in limited release after a controversial festival run. Is Verhoeven’s explicit sexualization of religion a shallow provocation, or a deep analysis of how implicit gender bias within institutions of faith only leads to violence and abuse? I’m honestly not entirely sure. There are times when Verhoeven is throwing so many ideas into his purposefully overcrowded screenplay that it starts to feel unfocused, like a dramatic version of the legendary "Aristocrats" joke. And yet there are also times when it feels like a culmination of his career, a film he was inevitably going to make in how it distills sexuality, corruption, broken systems, and provocation into one fascinating story. I’m not sure it all works, but there’s so much of it to consider and unpack and quite simply enjoy that it’s impossible to ignore. Paul Verhoeven doesn’t make movies that can be easily dismissed.
Benedetta Carlini was a real nun in the early 17th century in Pescia, a small village in Northern Italy. She reportedly had a relationship with one of her nuns while she was abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God, and she was stripped of her rank and imprisoned when the Papacy found out about it. She also reported having visions and even received the stigmata. In 1619, she claimed to have been visited by Jesus himself, who told Benedetta that she was to marry him. People started to question Benedetta’s proclamations, and the ensuing investigation revealed the forbidden relationship.
It would be an understatement to say that Verhoeven adapts this unusual tale, once recounted in a book by Judith C. Brown called Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, in a manner that only he could. He makes his fascination with the body and its functions evident early as two characters have a sort of romantic moment after defecating next to one another. It’s actually even earlier than that when a bird shits in a man’s eye and a stage show features a man lighting his farts. And yet it feels like no one should write all of this off as mere Verhoeven playfulness. There’s more to it. After all, as Benedetta is told, “Your worst enemy is your body.” This is a world in which the female body is seen as inherently sinful in all its needs and functions. Verhoeven seeks to explore that, placing that body on full display and leaning into carnal needs as filtered through religious iconography.— Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com
Wed November 30, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Belgium, France, Netherlands; 2021; in French, Latin; 131 min, digital • official site
Screenplay: Paul Verhoeven, Director: Paul Verhoeven, Screenplay: David Birke, Book: Judith C. Brown, Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin