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?
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.