Paul Verhoeven is nothing if not a provocateur, and Benedetta (2021) is the latest example, an extravagant, explicit tale of lesbian romance set in a 17th-century convent. Virginie Efira makes a striking impression as Bendetta, delivered as a child into the hands of the church under the auspices of cynical, tough-love abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Benedetta grows up a true believer, but her faith is tested when she takes mercy on Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a runaway fleeing abuse. Benedetta convinces her father to pay for Bartolomea’s admission to the convent as a novice, unaware of her own motive: an attraction that quickly blossoms into an unexpected physical relationship. Even as this progresses, Benedetta experiences godly visions – or claims to experience them – ultimately convincing the church leadership she’s been chosen as the bride of Jesus. This propels her into a position of power and convinces the locals she is a vessel of divinity, but when others in the church, including Felicita, begin to suspect she’s a con artist wielding her heavenly “gifts” for her own benefit, a controversial trial ensues.
Benedetta is pure Verhoeven, richly designed, full of eyeball kicks, and clearly the product of a dirty old man. But the story, based loosely on a non-fiction account, does have legitimate things to say about the exploitative opportunism of religion and its inextricable ties to the control of sexuality. The script cagily keeps the viewer guessing as to the genuineness of Benedetta’s visions, lending something of a trippy 1970s vibe to some sequences, but most of the narrative heavy lifting comes through committed performances from Efira, Patakia, and Rampling. It probably could have been executed with less egregious prurience, of course, but I suppose Verhoeven’s gotta Verhoeven.