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Benedetta review: an all-nuns-blazing tale of sex, sinners and unholy sisterhood

Director Paul Verhoeven is true to blasphemous form in this visually intoxicating romp based on the true story of an errant 17th century nun

When it was announced that Paul Verhoeven was working on a French-language biographical drama about a notorious 17th-century lesbian nun it was hard not to approach this particular combination of artist and subject matter with some immaculate preconceptions.

The veteran Dutch director behind Total Recall, Basic Instinct and raunchy semi-musical Showgirls (a huge critical flop recently reclaimed as bulletproof camp) had built a splashy Hollywood career by orchestrating sensational scenes of violence and sex. As a film-maker fascinated by sinners, surely Verhoeven’s Benedetta would be less Sister Act and more Ken Russell’s censor-baiting nunsploitation shocker The Devils?

The result is certainly not short on potentially blasphemous material, from habitual nudity and passionate sex scenes to unpleasant torture and at least two fart jokes. But for anyone already inured to Verhoeven’s brassy approach, the mind games swirling round the Italian convent of Benedetta are just as intriguing as its various all-nuns-blazing provocations. 

A brief prologue sees devout nine-year-old Benedetta Carlini delivered to a nunnery in Pescia by her well-off parents to be placed in the care of poised abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Young Benedetta’s intense relationship with the Virgin Mary – whom she talks to like an invisible friend – seems to manifest itself in startling ways, such as a potentially lethal accident that leaves the young novice miraculously unharmed. Could she genuinely have friends in high places?

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Cut to 18 years later and Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is as zealous as ever, but there is turmoil both within and without. An invisible plague is sweeping across Italy and Europe while the cloistered Benedetta is having dreams where she communes with an unexpectedly swashbuckling Jesus.

These out-of-body experiences seem to ramp up after the convent is crashed by Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a wild-eyed young farm girl seeking refuge from a brutal father. Thanks to financial charity from Benedetta’s family, the uneducated wretch joins the order. If Benedetta is a saintly head girl expert on every aspect of life inside the convent, Bartolomea has some more worldly experiences to share from outside. The two become fast friends, sharing knowledge on side-by-side commodes.

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Things ramp up when Benedetta has a particularly intense vision in which she interacts with Jesus on the cross. When she wakes up with her own deep stigmata it is welcomed as a miracle. Certainly the ambitious local provost, keen to attract Vatican attention to his backwater, thinks having a nun with a direct line to God could be a career-maker.

But other parties suspect that pious Benedetta might just be an attention-seeking drama queen or a ruthless self-harming manipulator with her eye on the (relatively) luxurious quarters that come with being the abbess. 

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So begins an escalating battle of wills as Benedetta’s growing notoriety upends the established order and draws the attention of a shrewd papal nuncio, who relishes witchcraft trials that end with a barbecue. But even as Benedetta and Bartolomea’s relationship deepens physically and emotionally, it is still unclear whether it is all an elaborate racket or even if they are both in on it.

It helps that Verhoeven ensures Benedetta’s visions are wild and heightened but essentially shot in the same handsome period style as the rest of the film: there are no softened dream-vision filters or rotating kaleidoscopic lenses. They feel queasily real to us so it is easy to believe they could feel the same to Benedetta, subconsciously inducing her to act a certain way.

Benedetta is in cinemas from April 15

Coming out in the UK just in time for Easter weekend chimes with the transgressive Verhoeven brand, but while the lurid elements of Benedetta might turn as many audiences off as on, it is worth seeing for its impressively committed central performance. Efira is called upon to play devout, wanton, calculating and possessed – often with demanding physicality – but finds a way to consolidate these facets in a performance that feels convincing while still retaining a sense of ambiguity. If the real-life Benedetta Carlini was a gifted actor then Efira is surely her equal.

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic
@graemevirtue

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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