“We’re all entitled to a sin,” one nun confesses to her attentive Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira). And sin she indeed does, so much so that you could cross off the whole list. Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta is a raunchy romp of lust-filled debauchery. This holy ascension of eroticism is everything you could hope for from a film labelled as the “lesbian nun movie”.
We’re first introduced to the titular Sister as a child novice on her first day at a Tuscan church. From there begins her slow rise to the top, beginning with a small miracle that spirals into bigger and flashier otherworldly feats. As an adult, she is a dedicated, and perhaps overzealous follower of God, experiencing visions involving Jesus Christ as her literal savior. Here, he’s a dashing knight in a white robe who slashes beasts and violent men to protect her. She also feels his pain, manifesting in real life as nasty injuries to her body. Whether her wounds are staged or an act of God is the ultimate question, and while Benedetta suffers in agony, her fellow Sisters aren’t totally convinced that it’s a divine sign from the man upstairs. But religion is, after all, an act of unwavering faith, and the convent’s disbelief in Benedetta cleverly exposes the organization of religion as a place riddled with hypocrisy that runs all the way up to the power-hungry rulers at the top.
In tandem with Benedetta’s series of miracles is the arrival of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), an abrasive runaway seeking refuge from her abusive family. Prone to profanities, she has little experience in the formalities of church, and also harbors an immediate attraction to Benedetta. Together they ascend the ranks of the church: Benedetta, the saint worshipped by the people of Pescia, and Bartolomea, the right-hand woman — and lover. Based on the true accounts of Benedetta’s affair, the film may not be textbook accurate, but it is wholly committed to the source material’s explicitness. Like Verhoeven’s previous film, the Isabelle Huppert-led rape revenge drama Elle, Benedetta is out to shock you. You can practically feel the discourse starting to bubble up after witnessing the frequent, outrageous sex scenes.
Above all, it’s an extremely silly film — there’s a fart joke not even five minutes in, and the toilet humor only continues from there — but it’s also moving in its own eccentric way. Benedetta and Bartolomea form a strange relationship full of love and libido, of mutual support and respect that’s earned over time. They only have each other to trust and confide in within a convent where privacy is pretty much non-existent. But any sense of seriousness that the film builds is quickly torn down by a low-brow joke, a jolt of bloody violence, or the introduction of a wooden sex toy that brought the press screening at Cannes to riotous applause.
As the central lovers, Efira and Patakia have sizzling chemistry and manage to pull off the film’s most ridiculous scenes, but it’s Charlotte Rampling as the convent’s Reverend Mother who’s the true calm center within Benedetta’s wild storm. Rampling commands the screen with her chilling, inscrutable frown, but in Pescia, even she is no match for the young abbess. Despite the power plays and deceitful tricks, it’s more straightforward and unsubtle than something like The Favourite, but Benedetta is not striving for complexity. This is classic nunsploitation at its finest. Praise be to Benedetta. Hot nun summer is here.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films will release Benedetta later this year.
Photo courtesy of Pathé