If you’re aware of Paul Verhoeven’s new movie Benedetta, you’re aware of the following things: it’s a lesbian nun movie and there is a dildo made out of a little statue of the Virgin Mary. You’ve also (maybe) been assured, as I have seen stated in various tweets and before the screening I attended of the movie itself, that yes, it’s a lesbian nun movie — but it’s more than a lesbian nun movie. Such statements awaken in me, I’ll admit, some suspicion. Does a movie need to be more than a lesbian nun movie? Isn’t that really plenty for a movie to be?
Very loosely based on Judith Brown’s 1986 book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Verhoeven’s movie first introduces us to Benedetta as a little child on her way to the Theatine convent in Pescia. She and her parents are briefly waylaid by bandits, but Benedetta haughtily informs them that they’d better not mess with her, as the Virgin Mary does everything Benedetta tells her to. At this moment, while the bandits are having some fun at her expense, a bird flies overhead and poops right into one of their eyes. Duly impressed, they let her go. When, eighteen years later, a desperate peasant named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) appears at the convent begging for asylum, she is let in partly thanks to the intervention of the now adult Benedetta (Virginie Efira).
The moment when Benedetta starts to reveal itself is in an early scene when Benedetta orders Bartolomea — who has fled from a household in which she was raped by her father and her brothers—to pull bobbins of silk thread out of boiling water. When Bartolomea hesitates, Benedetta tells her icily: do it, or I’ll send you back to your father. When Bartolomea grimly plunges her arm into the boiling water and pulls up three bobbins, Benedetta merely tells her to fetch the rest. Up until this scene, Bartolomea, who will eventually become Benedetta’s lover, has been posed as a kind of threat—though a liberatory one—to the virginal and placid-seeming Benedetta. As she puts her scalded arm back into the water, we begin to realize it’s the other way around.
As Bartolomea makes advances toward Benedetta, Benedetta in turn has disturbing visions; Bartolomea grabs her butt in church, and Benedetta sees herself being attacked by serpents. She hears voices and she suffers mysterious pains. She has another vision in which Christ asks her to disrobe and press herself close to him. Falling to the earth, she awakens to discover her hands are bleeding: she has received the stigmata. The abbess of the convent (a gloriously aloof Charlotte Rampling) thinks Benedetta is a fraud. The ecclesial authorities think a mystic would be great for tourism. When the abbess points out that Benedetta lacks one of the traditional signs of the stigmata, the crown of thorns, Benedetta falls into some broken glass and look — there it is. Or maybe the glass broke after she received the crown and she fell under the pain. It’s not impossible. Or maybe Benedetta is a fake who is nonetheless a tool of God. Or…
Is Benedetta a fraud? She certainly reveals herself over time to be ruthless, punishing one nun so harshly, upon her own ascension to abbess, that the nun kills herself. Her visions are largely self-celebratory, as are the proclamations that she delivers in the voice of Jesus, threatening those who cross her with disease and damnation. But Verhoeven takes the idea that Benedetta is a fraud off the table in one sense, because her visions and her dialogues with Jesus and the Virgin Mary are presented in the first half of the movie as real. We see that she actually experiences them. But if they’re real to her, does that make them real to anyone else? And if they’re real to her, does that excuse what she does?
Here’s the thing about Benedetta: It’s not a very good lesbian nun movie. It’s a good movie about other things, among them the line between blasphemy and devotion, and as a portrait of the religious authoritarian. But it’s as much a movie about lesbians as Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct is about bisexuality, which is to say, it’s a horny movie, but that’s about as far as it goes. Benedetta’s relationship with Bartolomea is an aspect of the adoration she extracts from others. But Bartolomea, like everybody else, is disposable, which is one of the things the bobbins scene is meant to teach her.
But the other thing I found myself wondering when watching the movie with an audience that found every line hilarious was this: can a movie like Benedetta succeed if there’s no one there to be shocked by it? Yes, the movie was, in a great marketing coup, picketed by a very small, conservative Catholic group at the New York Film Festival, but I mean the people actually seeing the movie. “I have never sinned,” Benedetta sweetly tells an older nun in a scene that closely follows the boiling bobbins scene. This is, in any understanding of Christianity, a ludicrous thing for her to say, and particularly ludicrous in its context. But it is how Benedetta understands herself. For her, there is no sin; for others, there is only sin inasmuch as they displease her.
Benedetta reserves for herself the right to raise people from hell, the right to speak as God, demands to be brought to the people on a donkey. Benedetta, in short, thinks she’s Jesus, and that should be shocking, even if you think she’s right to do so. Verhoeven himself is known to be obsessed with Jesus — he’s written a book on the man, has called RoboCop his “American Jesus” movie, and has been trying to put together a straightforward Jesus movie since at least 1992. And what I found thrilling about Benedetta is how she is both the hero and the villain of her own movie, a sincere fraud, an abusive underdog, a golden-haired angel who turns out to be as unreachable and inflexible as any real angel. She should at least be legible as shocking, and as a critique of Jesus in a nunsploitation guise.
But I’m not sure she was, even though Verhoeven makes her less sympathetic than her historical counterpart through his addition of the suicide she instigates. I can’t say I felt much more than cool intellectual appreciation for what was playing out in front of me, though that may just have been my own reaction to the other people in the room more than to the movie. In a piece I read several years ago from the Church of Satan, reacting to the Satanic Temple’s decision to stage a Black Mass, quoted Anton LaVey as saying that “a contemporary version of a black mass should poke fun at things being championed in society at-large.” A lot depends on what you think “society at-large” is here, but where there is no devotion, there can be no blasphemy. Verhoeven’s real audience, ultimately, were the angry people outside. Granted, I’m Catholic — maybe I’m just flattering myself. But I don’t think so.
If Benedetta plays against a context in which the idea of the real religious experience is meaningless, Benedetta’s visions read as simply cynical, one grifter making the colossal grift that is the Catholic Church work for her. If she is high on her own supply in that context, she’s stupid — and she certainly isn’t stupid. The mechanisms through which the Church attempts to assess the veracity of her experiences similarly don’t make much sense viewed in that way: the Church certainly doesn’t want to dilute the brand, but, as amply illustrated earlier, it has more to get out of a “real” mystic than declaring a fake one. It makes more sense to view everybody navigating this odd bureaucracy as believing it to be a little real and a little fake, and, even in the real, a little sublime and a little showbusiness. Maybe God wants you to receive the last bit of stigmata by inflicting it on yourself. You can’t rule it out.
The obvious movie to compare Benedetta with is Ken Russell’s 1971 movie The Devils, a movie which is still so controversial that it is almost impossible to watch (legally, at any rate). Like Benedetta, The Devils focuses on a real incident: a series of fraudulent possessions in Loudon, France, that resulted in the politically-motivated execution of a priest, Urbain Grandier. Putting the movies side by side, however, doesn’t do Benedetta a lot of favors. Russell’s movie is actively disgusting. Maggots crawl around in eye sockets, knees are broken, flesh rots away on still-living people. Unlike Benedetta, in which everybody seems to bathe quite regularly, the people in The Devils feel fleshly and dirty. But it is also a movie that depicts a cynical priest coming to sincere religious faith and trying to live rightly. Its most shocking sequence, in which a group of “possessed” nuns tear down a statue of Jesus and sexually assault it — as a priest stands by and masturbates over the scene — is intercut with a scene that depicts Grandier quietly celebrating Mass and possibly meaning it for the first time.
I don’t mean to make The Devils sound vindicatory of faith: Whatever personal victory Grandier gains over himself isn’t enough to save him from being tortured in brutal detail and burned to death. It’s a movie that is interested in extremes of sexuality, corruption, brutality, and faith. It’s the kind of movie you’d expect Verhoeven to make, but instead he tones it down. Everything is less real; everything’s a little cleaner. You see Benedetta and Bartolomea bond over taking a shit, but it doesn’t register as particularly earthy when it’s mostly a reason to show off some impeccable and spotless rear ends.
I’m in the minority (though our numbers grow every day) in thinking that Showgirls, Verhoeven’s infamous 1995 flop, is actually a great movie. But even if I thought it was a bad movie, I’d ultimately much rather have a Benedetta with the energy of Showgirls than the movie he made, and I feel that such a movie might have had a chance at genuinely shocking its audience in a way that this more respectable movie cannot. Much like The Devils, Showgirls is art whose successful transgression is underlined by the fact that it exists in a state of exile. But Benedetta is too beautiful and too graceful to really offend, and the people who could engage with it as offensive with a purpose are the least likely to watch it. It might be something more than a lesbian nun movie — but it’s also, unfortunately, something less.