This is absolutely a safe space to admit that Paul Verhoeven is one of the most well-rounded, self-aware filmmakers to ever live. We’re all thinking it, so someone might as well say it. His filmography can sometimes read like a list of things Bill Hader’s Stefon would read as parts of New York’s hottest new club, but that’s the somewhat smarmy beauty of it all. Verhoeven, while never actively seeking to be a purveyor of bad taste, knows how to take something lurid and turn it into a work of art, while never losing that wild side that makes experiencing each of his films a truly unique experience every time. After taking a 10-year break from filmmaking since his Dutch-language WWII drama Black Book, Verhoeven focused his comeback efforts on taking on the French film industry, a place where Verhoeven’s bawdiness isn’t just accepted, it’s downright celebrated. With 2016’s Elle, Verhoeven not only created his best film to date, but directed legendary actress Isabelle Huppert into giving her best performance to date, which, after her career, is a truly impressive feat. Now, looking to step back from the more straightforward, if still on-brand, feeling of Elle, Verhoeven’s Benedetta comes into existence as both a testament to the evolution of the Dutch filmmaker as an artist, but also reminding audiences just who the hell he is.
It’s a religious experience.
In 17th Century Tuscany (despite everyone in the film speaking French), a pious little girl joins a convent of her own volition when her parents notice a deep, unshakable faith within her. The little girl grows into the dedicated Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira) under the tutelage of Mother Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Upon the arrival of the destitute Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) who joins the convent to escape her abusive father, Benedetta begins to experience vivid visions of Jesus, and signs of stigmata. Her relationship with Bartolomea grows more intimate as her visions become more vivid, Benedetta must grapple with the power that comes with her unique abilities, as well as her controversial relationship to the outsider Bartolomea.
To say Benedetta isn’t for everyone is selling it a bit short. The mixture of sapphic eroticism, religious imagery (bordering on blasphemy at times, but that’s what makes it fun), visions of violence, and general insanity all around, Verhoeven proves within moments of the film’s start that he and only he can approach this material with such an unrestrained hand. So many films of late have taken a softer approach to more sensitive material, opting for audience comfort over raw emotion, but to see a filmmaker so notable for not doing that in the throes of the ‘80s and ‘90s continue to operate with such fearlessness is refreshing and jarring in the best way.
Efira, who also starred as a supporting role in Verhoeven’s Elle, takes the extra screen time offered with this role and runs with it to create a character that is both sympathetic and inherently detestable all at once. Much like the demented magnetism that Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammel in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct…or Sharon Stone’s Lori in Verhoeven’s Total Recall…and now that I think about it…needless to say Verhoeven brings out the same femme fatale (albeit with much more religious benevolence) that he brought out with Stone so many years ago. In true Verhoeven fashion, this taps into the campier, gaudier side of Verhoeven’s directorial style, and for a film that any other burgeoning filmmaker would operate on with a scalpel, Verhoeven goes in with a chainsaw. Unlike other films of late which attempted to tap into the vein of camp (*cough*House of Gucci*cough*), Benedetta feels like a project where everyone involved knew exactly how Verhoeven wanted it to be played, and thus it feels like a much more cohesive experience as a whole.
But Benedetta doesn’t solely exist to titillate and shock (it does certainly do that), but it also works wonders as an indictment of religious hypocrisy, how arbitrary views are enforced with such brutal barbarism that contradicts the same platitudes that make up the religion as a whole, with those in power looking to hold onto said power no matter how many morals they have to betray in the name of righteousness. Parallel to that with each day that passes, with each outcry of disapproval from religious camps in regards to the film, I’m finding the actual message of the film to only be proven further by an inability to approach the film as anything but blasphemous. It feels as if Verhoeven and IFC Films are spending this entire press tour of controversy looking into the camera like they’re on The Office, and I think that’s beautiful.
Benedetta is a lot, but it’s not trying to pretend like it’s trying to be anything but a lot. In fact, it’s a metric ton of sex, violence, religious blasphemy, camp, and so on. Verhoeven is a filmmaker that knows exactly how to weave luridity in with heavy, sometimes impenetrable (pun intended) narratives to create something that, while on paper sounding lewd for the sake of it, justifies its existence with a surprising amount of emotional heft. Benedetta certainly feels more like a return to the salacious form of filmmaking we’ve grown to love him for, while also embracing much of the lessons learned on the much more grounded Elle. It feels like Verhoeven in his most complete form, and while that means polarizing views of the film are coming, it left me a happy, shocked, sometimes a little uncomfortable, boy.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
In select theaters December 3rd, 2021.
Available on VOD December 21st, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Benedetta website.