Humiliation Doesn’t Leave a Mark: Benedetta (2021) - Reviewed

Paul Verhoeven's biographical film Benedetta (2021) has an air of controversy around it with a showing at the Lincoln Center even garnering a small protest outside. The subject, a 17th century nun named Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), is definitely an intriguing woman, one who was blessed (or perhaps more accurately plagued) with religious visions and who also engaged in a sapphic relationship with fellow convent member Bartolomea (Daphene Patakia). Benedetta is revered for her visions but also must keep her sexual urges hidden from both the convent and the Vatican.

In the hands of another director, perhaps the material would have been taken completely seriously, but Verhoeven is no stranger to lurid asides and biting satire and he employs both of these things to intriguing effect in this film. The tone is all over the place, teetering between over-the-top comedy, nunsploitation, religious philosophizing, and softcore porn. It's reminiscent of the 1979 porno arthouse train-wreck Caligula, mixing transgressive shocks with thoughtful criticism of Catholicism. Where Caligula was more concerned with opulent splendor, Benedetta is content to examine the politics of the church but never missing a chance to linger on nude bodies and fairly explicate sex scenes.

The humor of the film is surprising, especially when it comes to the depiction of Benedetta's visions--they revolve around a strange interpretation of Jesus, where he is more of a hunky trash romance novel protagonist than the son of God. Each vision is more outlandish than the last, and they are, quite frankly, hilarious. Verhoeven isn't shy about exposing the absurdities of religion and the way that transcendental rapture is not unlike orgasmic pleasure, and that perhaps these nuns have replaced physical sex with religious devotion.

Lambert Wilson plays The Nuncio, a diplomat sent to the convent to investigate Benedetta's claims and physical evidence of her visions, as she develops stigmata and other cuts on her body. Wilson chews the scenery, relishing in the seedier side of the the film, and engages in quite a few sexually tinged unsavory acts. 

Many nunsploitation (and witch trial films) focus on torture scenes with the poor young women who are being accused of crimes, and this one is no different in that regard. The Nuncio also represents the church physically and metaphorically bringing plague to the small town that he stays in while he is conducting his duties. The correlation between the spreading of plague and the spreading of religion is an obvious metaphor.

On a technical level, Benedetta feels disorganized, the different tones don't gel together well, and it's hard to get a grasp on the narrative as a result. The editing is also haphazard, and it jumps around quite a lot. The film is still incredibly entertaining, however, technical complaints  aside, and the sleaze factor gives the film a subversive edge over similar films of its ilk.

--Michelle Kisner