Paul Verhoeven has often built films around powerful blonde women who might be minx or martyr, saint or sadist – Renee Soutendijk in The Fourth Man, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, Carice van Houten in Black Book, Isabelle Huppert in Elle … the actresses even look alike, which extends to less central characters played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Elisabeth Shue in Flesh + Blood and Hollow Man.
Now, Virginie Efira joins the collection as well-born 17th century Italian nun Benedetta, who lived in the walled city of Pescia. Benedetta seems divinely if absurdly protected from childhood (played by Elena Plonka) – one miracle involves a bird shitting on a bandit’s eye, another a falling statue of the Virgin Mary which doesn’t crush her but does shove a naked wooden breast in her face. The adult Sister Benedetta is somehow able to reconcile a sense of God-given altruistic mission with highly sexualised passion for novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patika), who comes from a much rougher background, and a commitment to convent politics that sees her parlaying dubious stigmata into a boardroom takeover that ousts the abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Local churchmen are happy to go along with Benedetta’s showbusiness miracles, remembering how St Francis turned Assissi from an obscure village to a wealthy pilgrimage destination … but Sister Christina (Louis Chevillotte), the Abbess’ daughter, bristles with so much outrage at the fakery that she exaggerates claims of evidence against the miracle to tragic effect. As a comet casts a sickly light over the walled city of Pescia, the abbess’s attempts to put Benedetta in her place by calling on a higher authority bring the metaphorical plague of a papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson) and his torturers to the city along with the literal pestilence that’s ravaging the countryside. When Benedetta proclaims that Jesus – who she sometimes imagines as an action hero pin-up or lover – has promised to spare the town the plague, has she made a cardinal error … or will fate, God or irony back her up?
In the 1960s and ‘70s, a run of mostly-Italian films with titles like The True Story of the Nun of Monza or Behind Convent Walls (not to mention Ken Russell’s The Devils) tackled similar historic subject matter with exploitative intent – and Verhoeven happily takes an even more explicit, lurid approach. Because she can’t penetrate her lover deep enough with her fingers to satisfy her, Bartolomea takes a small statue of the Virgin Mary Benedetta brought to the convent as a child and carves its lower half into a sacrilegious dildo – used in a sex scene that is later mirrored by a torture sequence involving an implement known as ‘the iron pear’ used to force a betrayal that also involves the sacred sex toy. Verhoeven, as often before, shows his female leads in the throes of sweaty passion but also suffering undignified legal or medical procedures or spattered in blood, mud and other mess.
Also typical of the director, this is at once a serious film on an important subject – the levels of male and female power in political, sexual and religious systems – and a completely gripping soap opera with multiple twists, turns and surprises … ranging from stretches of earthy humour to moments of physical and spiritual horror. Efira’s Benedetta is a heroine and a monster, unnervingly sure of her own mission and purpose … ferociously self-interested in a way that shocks the otherwise utterly venal Bartolomea (who only becomes a nun because she’s fed up of being raped by her father and brothers) and infuriates the devout Christina (so much that the good woman is tempted to sin) but also genuinely altruist and brave in the service of her community. Most nunsploitation films end with torture and execution – and the climax here does find someone condemned to be burned at the stake – but Verhoeven isn’t the type to deliver a simple downer, and the finale takes an outrageous scenes-we’d-like-to-see approach to the set-up of, say, The Devils. Whether Benedetta is a saint or a psychopath is still up for debate, but the film is amazingly entertaining and a likely contender for cultdom.