de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

A provocative and subversive condemnation of dogmatic oppression that is undercut by an overstuffed screenplay and an over-the-top third act with overripe melodrama is all found in Paul Verhoeven’s (Robocop, Starship Troopers, Elle) latest feature film, titled Benedetta. Based on Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance, which is based on historical events in 17th century in Pescina in Tuscany. This button-pushing and edgy nunsploitation film is certainly uneven, with many bizarre tonal shifts, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from the filmmaker of such trash classics like Showgirls and Basic Instinct.

As Benedetta unfolds, Verhoeven delivers a racy film that has a mix of camp, masochism, and religious iconography, while exploring female sexuality, female anatomy, and how it’s all confined to the power structure of patriarchy and dogmatic rule. A film that is contradictory by design—Verhoeven stages his scenes that can feel playful and erotic one moment, spiritual and blasphemous the next, only for them to feel nauseous and gratuitous from scene to scene.

Benedetta Review: Verhoeven's Lesbian Nun Drama Doesn't Inspire Faith |  IndieWire

The film opens with a young girl Benedetta (Elena Bonka) arriving to the town’s convent, she is welcomed by a mother superior nun named Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), and her group of orthodox nuns, in which Verhoeven wastes no time in developing the themes of the film where one of the nuns explains how “Your body is your worst enemy.”

Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke begin to lay the groundwork for religious hypocrisy as Benedetta will eventually to start her own sexual revolution against the Catholic norms in very sophisticated ways that’s merged with camp and of desecration. Benetta begins to realize that there is a lot of Catholic guilt about the human flesh, where it’s left condemned where the belief is the body and flesh is just a prison to the soul when in reality–Catholicism and Christianity is quite entranced with the human body and its deformations.

Review: Paul Verhoeven gives us nunsense with 'Benedetta' | Entertainment  News Headlines | citizentribune.com

Ever since she was a young girl, Benedetta has believed she has had a spiritual connection with the Virgin Mary. Benedetta also holds visions and dreams of Jesus (Jonathan Couzne) who often rescues in her dreams with a sword and sandals from doom that involves CGI snakes and bandits that deliberately looks like it’s out of a Dean Cain or Kevin Sorbo low-budget Christian movie. In these scenes, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is now a grown woman and a seasoned nun. Based on a real nun, it’s been documented in history that she had a relationship with another fellow nun while she resided at the mother of God, in Northern Italy, in which she was phased out of the Catholic church and imprisoned by the church once they found out about it. The film captures these historical truths, and it gets quite violent when Benedetta receives her own stigmata where blood pours out of her hands and feeds in the same wounds Christ suffered from in the crucifixion.

It’s here where the tone of the film feels like an exploitation film, and this certainly intensifies once a young woman named Bartolmea (Daphne Patakia) arrives at the covenant, who’s seeking refuge from her abusive father who sexually and psychically abuses her. Bartolmea is certainly a sexualized woman, she locks eyes with Benedetta and is very flirtatious towards her.  Eventually Bartolmea allows Benedetta to discover her own desires and sexual awakenings, that ends up becoming very erotic and streamy, in which both women end up developing story. However, just when you think the film is going to be another Portrait of a Lady on Fire type of period piece lesbian tale, Verhoeven takes a polar opposite approach as the story ends up losing all of its camp and pleasures in a messy third act that goes way off the rails as a red comet appears in the sky and a plague begins to infect the village. The film’s finale feels like it belongs in another film and it’s frankly not all that well staged. The film is also flooded with a lot of hilarious images involving sexual toys made out of Virgin Mary statutes, and some steamy lesbian sex scenes that’s staged and written like it’s a 17th century version of Showgirls with nuns instead of strippers.

Catholics protest 'Benedetta' at New York Film Festival premiere - Knews

But there are moments of maturity and grace to be found about faith that are very surprising. Once Felita attempts to convince Benedetta that true faith can only come from true suffering, that the purpose of Christ is to endure the same level of Christ, and it’s something everyone should embrace and prepare for. Benedetta observes these hypocrisies and weaponizes her sophistication, in which she ends up holding a divine presence herself.

It’s uncertain just how serious Verhoeven wants us to take the film? The film unfolds with a wide area of themes and tones, it’s difficult to evaluate.  Regardless, it’s great to see veteran filmmaker Verhoeven still directing films at age 83, who still hasn’t lost his edge or perversion that has been found in several other films over the years. His condemnation of religious hypocrisy and the Catholic church feels combative, and the material still possesses an invigorating confidence. Much of the film was shot in Italy, and the tone of the film has the right blend of period detail and delirious fun, only if it continued the momentum through the final act.