Movies · Reviews

‘Benedetta’ Takes a Brutal but Accurate Angle on Christian History

Paul Verhoeven’s lifelong research on the Church culminates in a marvelously incisive nun thriller.
By  · Published on July 14th, 2021

Benedetta is many things: a lesbian nun thriller, a visceral body horror, a 17th century period piece, a bureaucratic maze, an adapted historical account, and more. But above all, it’s a sharp, stinging critique of the Christian church’s putrid history of manipulation and power-mongering – an exposé on what the church actually looked like, a concerned wake up call that echoes more and more across cultures as we evolve: “Who decides what is god’s will?”

Writer, director, and career provocateur Paul Verhoeven introduces us to Benedetta in her youth (Elena Plonka), and it’s only a matter of minutes before he weds the religious, the political, and the erotic in his own distinctly twisted fashion. On her first night in the convent, after her parents have left her there for good, little Benedetta, eager and full of faith, sneaks in an extra prayer to a stone statue of the Virgin Mary. But suddenly, mid-prayer, the statue tips and falls in a seismic quake that wakes the others.

Benedetta should be dead, but the statue miraculously has frozen in the air a foot above the ground. The Virgin Mary has pinned her down missionary style and in perfect teat-suckling position. Benedetta takes the bait, getting in a quick nip suck before the others come running down the hall. All who observe the sacraments are likely exiting the movie theater.

Soon, we find Benedetta in adulthood (Virginie Efira). At the abbey, she’s grown into a wholesome and devout woman known for her elaborate visions. One day, a girl being chased by a sexually abusive father bursts through the doors and begs to live at the convent. The austere abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) allows it only after some capital is exchanged, despite knowing Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) would return to a hellish existence with her father. Once Bartolomea is in the picture, everything changes. But the twists and turns are too juicy to spoil here.

Many are either uneducated on, have largely forgotten about, or have retroactively absolved the Christian church in its supremely violent and greedy conquest of the world over the millennia (and I say this from the perspective of someone with two theology degrees and a myriad of church history courses under my belt). But the Dutch filmmaker aims to educate or remind us… while keeping us wildly entertained, of course. He approaches the uncommon and intentionally ignored intersection of topics like he approaches most of his work: with a gripping, incisive, gory, well-researched, and wryly comedic tone that only he could pull off.

For instance, Christian scripture in Benedetta holds a more historically accurate role than it does in most stories about Christianity, regardless of perspective. It is used as a weapon first and foremost – one of many awful habits of ancient church culture that still thrives, or has yet to be unlearned, in 21st century Christianity. When Benedetta, the abbess, or others disagree with their peers, or want something they can’t have, or are trying to plainly excuse bad behavior, they fire scripture bullets at their target, molding the words to serve their purpose and cornering their opponent in the process under the assumption that one can’t disagree with god. That is, unless they have a passage loaded up for their own gain, as Benedetta and the abbess always do in their passive aggressive cunning.

In all of its absurdity, nudity (there is a lot), and cruelty, it might seem easy to balk at the claim that Benedetta presents the church as it actually was, but the shock is partly the point. Verhoeven has written revered, scholarly texts on Jesus of Nazareth and hails from the home of the Dutch Reformed tradition (one of the cruelest, most torturous sects in two thousand years of Christian history), so he knows the church’s ugly past better than most. Church history is brimming with the most egregiously inhumane stories you can imagine, and Benedetta fits snugly into them with a rare historical transparency around sexuality and violence. After all, this is based on a true story, adapted from historian Judith C. Brown’s “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” Verhoeven takes liberties with the story, but that’s because he’s a creative. He means to wow us as much he means to get us thinking.

Verhoeven critiques the social and economic ethics of the church through clever dialogue and hilarious characterizations of Jesus Christ. For example, in our first scene with Felicita, Benedetta’s father and Felicita discuss the price of leaving Benedetta there. He was under the impression he could just drop her off, but the abbess won’t have it. “A convent is no place for charity,” she retorts sharply. They proceed to haggle, and the abbess dominates, exploding with false rage when the father suggests greater compromise and accusing him of devaluing his daughter’s life, as if she hasn’t already whittled Benedetta (and all the others) down to a dollar value. They settle on a price and the father extends his hand. “We’re not horse-trading,” Felicita scoffs, pretending that what they were doing was different.

Through the abbess, Verhoeven makes the church’s intentions clear: it’s about power and business strategy, not people. It’s about calculation – the mastery of a manipulative wit that allows one to connive their way to the top through performative faith. It’s about carrying influence. It’s of course true that many, if not most, in the church don’t think this way. But it’s one’s blind or cowardly allegiance to a faith tradition, on disturbing display here, that renders that brand of faith in service of vile pursuits, even if there’s silent disapproval beneath the surface.

Comical, sword-wielding depictions of Jesus also give insight into the bastardized and non-scriptural version of Christ the lower-class masses often envisioned at the time. The women in the convent identify as his brides, as nuns do in spirit, but their isolation, lack of sexual experience, and lifelong devotion have led them to eroticize him. To them, he is equal parts Captain America, Brad Pitt, and god.

Benedetta dreams of marrying him, having sex with him, being saved by him, etc. It’s easily one of the most provocative aspects of the film, seeing as many denominations are bound to denounce the picture for its blasphemous depictions of Christ. But Verhoeven is right in depicting him that way and smart for making it funny, which allows us to both understand the grave insanity of it all and laugh. But for non-Christians, there are much more upsetting things to see, like hands held in boiling water and rotting breasts, to name a couple.

Benedetta looks the church in the eye and asks, “What do you have to say for yourself?” And knowing the reply will be non-existent or defensive, it continues: “Fuck you.” The king of provocation is back and better than ever.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.