For nearly half a century, acclaimed Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has specialised in giving audiences a bit of what they fancy in the guise of a critique of their fancies. In his most successful ventures – Starship Troopers (1997), RoboCop (1987) – the underlying gag allows for some insight into the nature of the institution, ideology or phenomena at hand: under American imperialism, military victory means endless war; in the destitute inner cities of Reaganism, the best cop is a dead cop. The resulting films are gore-splattered festivals of silliness; the major award achievements of his works to date have all been in the fields of special effects rather than script or direction. When Verhoeven has turned from violence to his other major theme, sex, as in Basic Instinct (1992) or Showgirls (1995), he has pioneered a pantomime representation of female sexuality. Only Elle (2016), his penultimate film, heralded as a return from his ironic Hollywood period to a European auteur style, avoided the tone of a clownish striptease, thanks to a magisterial performance by Isabelle Huppert and the strength of its source material, Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh (2012).
In Benedetta, a loose adaptation of historian Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts (1986) – an account of the life and times of Benedetta Carlini, a seventeenth-century nun and reputed mystic in the Tuscan town of Pescia, tried for her sexual relationship with the younger Bartolomea – he turns his focus to the early-modern Catholic Church. Kind of. Benedetta is also Verhoeven’s first film to feature a lesbian sexual relationship at its heart, rather than as ballast for cheap thrills and even cheaper character development. Except Benedetta is not really a film about either of these things, as uninterested in female desire as it is in the transcendent psychology of the mystic or the conniving intrigues of the Medici courts. Rather, it’s an excuse for some bedbound writhing, some CGI snakes, and a lipsmacking papal nuncio, all stitched so baggily together that the sum of the whole is less fun than its parts.
Faith, in particular, is a source of silliness in the film. The potential for the failure of religious conviction it depicts to act as an engine of drama is overlooked in favour of low-level convent intrigue, and so one is left wondering why anyone bothers with vespers, never mind lauds. No one seems to believe with any fervour, except a few unnamed nuns and the wretched and filthy poor who stumble about farting into torches in the town square, genuflecting to closed convent doors, picking up and putting down baskets of chickens. Inside the convent walls, Reformation-creep has set in. The Abbess (a wearied Charlotte Rampling, whose resolute theatrical posture acts as a mast for the drooping sails of the action) admits to having consecrated herself to Jesus out of ennui. When her daughter attempts to denounce Benedetta (Virginie Efira) for feigning her visions and signs of God’s grace, the Abbess confides that religious life is all a ruse anyway – the prosperity of the town and its church functionaries take precedence over truth. This is no revelation to her or to the audience: as we discover in the opening act of the film, eighteen years earlier, after a falling statue of the Virgin failed to crush Benedetta, the Abbess remarked that ‘miracles sprout like mushrooms, and usually they’re more trouble than they’re worth’.
Benedetta’s visions are obviously the product of zealous narcissism and boredom, and no one is fooled or even particularly interested in attempting to be fooled by her stigmata, for which entirely modern explanations are offered: she has fallen into a trance and self-harmed, which is possibly an obscure expression of God’s will but, who cares. This ambiguity could well have been a source of tension for the film – the emergence of a new mystic was always a threat to the Church. Like the human vessels of RoboCops, saints have to die before they can be useful to authority. But Benedetta is sent to the stake for sodomy, not heresy. When two characters expire with the word ‘lies’ on their lips both are merely making observations, not accusations.
In interviews, Verhoeven confessed to having rarely considered nuns before reading Brown’s book. Perhaps as a result, he exhibits a flippant view of the convent, seeing it as window dressing for the violation of taboos, rather than a social and spiritual system of its own. The film’s secular portrayal of religious life corresponds to his unlikely but devoted participation in the Jesus Seminar, a now-dormant working group of iconoclastic New Testament scholars and interested parties (Verhoeven’s academic background lies in mathematics) committed to determining the historical basis of Jesus’s life and teachings through anthropology, ancient history and exegesis (he published a book on the subject, Jesus of Nazareth, in 2010). But where the subjects of his other films – Vegas, insect alien invasions, dysfunctional murder detectives – can withstand an infusion of irony, the same cannot be said of holy orders. Catholicism is perceived by Verhoeven as a melodrama, full of knowing participants along for the ride. In Benedetta, this manufactured unseriousness leads Verhoeven to overlook a truism: one cannot out-camp the Catholic Church.
Such a view needn’t necessarily condemn the film – the rich canon of cinematic nuns is hardly known for its historical fidelity. But despite effortful performances from Efira and Daphne Patakia in the two lead roles, there’s little delight outside the few moments of slapstick. Disappointingly for Verhoeven, whose penchant for excess has generally produced visual feasts, there’s not much to look at either. The film’s palette flips back and forth from a muddy orange candlelight to a blanched stone, and much of the dialogue is shot in a blockish profile across the central third of the screen. In her book, Brown goes into some detail regarding the painterly aesthetics of Benedetta’s visions, which produced a closed-circuit justification: Catherine of Siena, the historical Benedetta claimed, looked just like she did in the pictures, which meant the visions must have been genuine. For any filmmaker a vision sequence that takes its cues from the art of Renaissance Italy ought to be a source of endless invention and play, the uncanny landscapes of what Yves Bonnefoy called the arrière-pays (isolated clusters of Tuscan towns dotting the hillsides behind portraits of merchants or Nazarene scenes) a fertile setting for wild imaginings in which a sheltered nun might encounter her immortal husband in Christ. Instead Verhoeven gives us a soft-rock Jesus herding lambs in a soft-focus landscape that wouldn’t look amiss on the backwall of a ropey British trattoria. These scenes are played for their ridiculousness, but the few laughs they generate don’t justify the missed opportunity to develop a less bland aesthetic; instead, they just allow us to see Benedetta’s rape and saviour fantasies played out with codpieces and habit-ripping galore.
If religion is merely a form of sanctified daftness, one lacking any power over the protagonists except in the provision of bureaucratic offices in which to pass their days until the next plague, then something else must take its place as the film’s animating concern. In the second half of Benedetta, the plot moves from visions to assignations. Here Patakia as Benedetta’s novice lover manages to create moments of light and sweet naivety, enjoying the privacy afforded by Benedetta’s promotion to Abbess without suspecting surveillance and betrayal (whereas for Verhoeven straight sex always inclines towards performance, lesbian sex is possible only in titillating secrecy, glimpsed through closing doors and peepholes). Verhoeven doesn’t reward her for it though, and instead films her character’s subsequent torture scene with the same waist-up angles as he filmed Benedetta’s ecstasy; if it’s meant as a comment it’s a strangely cruel one, undermining earlier moments of tenderness between the protagonists by drawing parallels with a gruesome set-piece of sexual suffering. Verhoeven’s major deviation from the historical record is to repurpose a Virgin Mary statue into a sex toy, which in interviews he claims was to justify Benedetta’s death sentence (for centuries canon law prevaricated on the sinfulness of lesbianism, but generally agreed that the use of instruments qualified as an impotent form of sodomy and was thereby punishable in the same manner). For a film which has shown so little interest in the reality of its historical material it feels like a tawdry excuse. But then so does Benedetta.
Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Church Militant’, NLR 128.