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Benedetta (2021) – Review – A Bold and Darkly Humorous Film That Showcases What Happens When Paul Verhoeven is Given Complete Creative Control

December 1, 2021

Quick Note – Grade – B+ – Benedetta is what happens when Paul Verhoeven is given complete creative control. It’s funny, incendiary, dramatic and totally committed to achieving a singular vision. The cast is game, and you can tell they trusted Verhoeven to make something unique and memorable. 

Loosely based on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Benedetta tells the story of a 17th century nun named Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), who experiences religious visions and has miracles after she begins a sexual relationship with a women named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who was recently accepted in the nunnery. Verhoeven and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie bathe the film in light, and the locations and production design give the movie an old school and artificial look that contrast with the lurid material (think Psycho and its B&W stylings that made the kills more shocking). What makes this a supreme Verhoeven film is that it features poop jokes, excessive nudity, strategic goosing, and questions about who decides God’s will. There is some heady material in Benedetta, that is treated with a melodramatic and occasionally comedic flair, which is refreshing as Verhoeven isn’t trying to make any kind of prestige picture that takes itself too seriously.  Also, adding to the charm is that the film takes place in Italy, but features French actors speaking in French, as Verhoeven decided that filming in the Italian language would’ve been too difficult. 

Since it’s a Verhoeven film about illicit affairs between nuns, the movie was deemed controversial before anyone saw it. But, if you know anything about Verhoeven is that he likes to push buttons, and not make movies that anyone else could make (this is why he dislikes Hollow Man so much, because anyone could’ve made it). What’s surprising about Benedetta is how melodramatic the proceedings are. With Starship Troopers he added facist elements alongside brutal violence to sneak in a message, and in Elle, he avoided the classic rape-revenge elements by having his lead character behave in ways that went against known movie tropes. With Benedetta, he makes a complete 180-degree turn from the coldness of Elle, and sly messaging of Starship Troopers, and instead bathes Virginie Efira with light, notably lighting up her hair to make it seem like heaven is shining beams of sunshine exclusively on her head. Her performance reflects this as Benedetta is totally earnest in her religious pursuits, and seems to totally believe in what she’s preaching. There are some winks at the camera, but the characters take everything seriously, and mostly avoid extreme camp or biopic importance.

In interviews, Verhoeven has said that he isn’t attacking religion itself, as he has a complicated relationship with his faith. Instead, he’s going after the Catholic church who during this time were responsible for a lot of senseless murder, and ordering people like Benedetta to their deaths because of their creative usage of a Virgin Mary statue. Sure, the movie will incite some loud voices on Twitter, but hopefully people will quickly realize what Verhoeven is up to, and enjoy the ride.

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