Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efra), a nun in 17th century Italy, receives visions of Jesus Christ and eventually, through political machinations, becomes the abbess of her convent and usurps the longstanding abbess, Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). During all this, Benedetta conducts a sexual relationship with fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) and begins to draw more power to herself, all while a virulent plague inches towards the abbey...
For those of a certain vintage, you have to step back and wonder about how surreal it is that a movie like 'Benedetta' is getting screened in Ireland without a single peep from either IFCO or the religious establishment. Moreover, that it's even being screened in the first place. Time was Ireland was one of the most censorious places for a movie with religious or sexual themes, yet now we're able to comfortably review this movie without fear of being hauled up in front of a judge.
To begin with, the most boring part of 'Benedetta' is actually the sexually explicit parts. While Paul Verhoeven is known for making provocative movies where sexuality and its expression are often weaponised against protagonists, here in 'Benedetta', it's merely a part of the scenery like the nun's habits or the beautiful Tuscan landscape. Benedetta, played with real gusto by Virginie Efra, has no shame in her body or her desires, and indeed, there's no ambiguity about it either. The only thing that is ambiguous is everything else. You're never entirely sure if Benedetta believes her own hype, if she really does have visions of Jesus, or if she simply convinces herself of it. Moreover, is she so coy as to not realise that her being a prophetess will bring riches down on her convent? And is she so certain of herself that she cannot imagine her plans failing?
In truth, the most intriguing aspect of 'Benedetta' is how it approaches the clash of classes. Benedetta is born of utter privilege, her parents literally buying her way into the convent, while her lover Bartolomea is flung in front of the abbess by her abusive father and only brought in when Benedetta's father offers to pay her entrance. Benedetta's whole confidence and self-belief is even a product of her privilege and upbringing, while Bartolomea knows what is to live under someone else's power. Yet, by the end, the order is upside down and there's a collapse in the structure that's supported the inequities for so long.
By far, 'Benedetta' represents Paul Verhoeven's most darkly satirical work since 'Starship Troopers'. There's a real sense of playfulness to it, that he's now so unconcerned with trying to please mainstream audiences and can essentially make whatever he damn well pleases. Yet, it's not to say that he's become indulgent or lazy in his work. Quite the opposite, in fact. There's a real command of atmosphere and tension in 'Benedetta', and you're all the time captivated by how brazen it all is and how sharply in command it is - from the cast and the direction on down. The pacing and editing match the waves of the story, but there's a sense that the ending never quite matches the build-up before it.
While the sexiness and the scandalousness are what will initially attract audiences to 'Benedetta', it slips a wickedly cynical and witty story about power and hypocrisy under the sheets and makes it all the more appealing for its presence. Up with this sort of thing.