PAUL VERHOEVEN, director and co-writer of Benedetta (Cert. 18), at the age of 83, still hopes to adapt his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth, which arose from membership of a seminar group of biblical scholars and interested others. Like it, his new film is well-researched but also the product of strongly imaginative flights of fancy.
He takes up the story of a real-life 17th-century nun, Benedetta Carlini, and runs riot with it. No surprise; for this is the director of several controversial sex-and-violence films: Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, etc. His latest explores, sometimes shockingly, the links that religion has with what drives our behaviour.
Eight-year-old Benedetta is taken to a Theatine convent in Pescia, Tuscany, an order practising mortifications of the flesh. Even then, she is something bargained over by a convent demanding a dowry. The girl grows up accepting Theatine’s mantra: “Your worst enemy is your body.” In maturity, she (Virginie Efira) questions the supposed sinfulness of physical desires, reinforced by erotic visions of a gorgeous-looking Jesus. She is, after all, “a bride of Christ”.
When Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) joins the order, fleeing her abusive father, Benedetta experiences sensual love. Subsequent explicit scenes could befit a Naughty Nuns sexploitation movie, but for Verhoeven’s broad satirical wink. In the spirit of the excesses of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), he is sending up a Christianity that fails to be responsibly incarnational. Sexual repression leads to horrifying misuses of power, especially when translated into religious authority. Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling at her haughty best) wields it. Lambert Wilson as the mendacious papal nuncio couldn’t be further removed from his gentle abbot in Of Gods and Men (Arts, 10 December 2010).
Benedetta uses her power, sexual and otherwise, to attain her ends. A corrupt Christianity in which authority figures falsely claim to have God on their side lies at the heart of Verhoeven’s piece. In querying the mindset of bygone years that “Suffering is the only way to know Christ”, he interrogates the frequently cruel hedonism of our own, as represented in his protagonist.
There is an impending judgement. Unintentionally (because the film was shot four years ago), Benedetta addresses one of today’s burning issues: Covid. The film calls it la peste, a nod perhaps to Camus’s novel and how powerless we can be in determining our own destinies unless we strike out. Benedetta does so by imposing lockdown, and is seen by the general population as its Saviour.
This is a morality tale for our time. It feels no accident that Efira has a very modern look about her, with or without clothes. Like some of our messianic leaders, can we believe a word that she says? When Bartolomea accuses her of having no shame, Benedetta retorts that shame does not exist, because she speaks as Jesus.
If the Roman Catholic Church, emerging from the Counter-Reformation, was intent on suppressing ecstasy it frequently flew in the face of a society hell-bent on exalting it. Verhoeven may brandish a flamboyant paintbrush with the fervour of his earlier Pentecostal background, but he leaves it open enough for us to consider for ourselves what would constitute true Christianity nowadays.
In cinemas from 15 April.