Based on Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the latest film by Paul Verhoeven revives the genre of nunsploitation with an uncanny Covid twist — and terrific performances from its female leads.
A brilliant and devout young 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from vivid and erotic visions about Jesus Christ. She is instantly attracted to a young woman who runs away to the convent to escape incest at the hands of her male relatives. The women fall in love and test the limits of the flesh and the spirit against the disapproval of their order — and a descending plague of Biblical proportions. As Benedetta begins to increasingly channel the voice of Jesus, can she reconcile her sexual passion with her religious fervor? And is she telling the truth about the miracle of her possession or will she be burned at the stake as a heretic as the contagion spreads in her village…?
This film is a fever dream of horror, religious satire, sex, scatology, and camp — and some pretty compelling acting, especially from Belgian actress Virginie Efira, her co-star Daphné Patakia, and veteran marvel Charlotte Rampling. Meticulously researched and oddly compelling, Benedetta is a religious epic filtered through the lens of 82-year-old Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who is famous for incorporating the more salacious aspects of human sexuality into genre-specific cinema experiences: think bisexuality and noir in Basic Instinct; or rape and feminist vengeance in Elle. Whether you think Verhoeven is a dirty old man or an auteur is up to you. And the central prop of a wooden figurine of the Virgin Mary that becomes repurposed as a sex toy may in advance tell you all you need to know about this film. Instrument of God or sacrilege?
Benedetta treads a tightrope over the gulf between the physical and the metaphysical…but without taking it too seriously. Spoiler alert: The meet-cute between Benedetta and Bartolomea literally happens while sitting on the toilet. Verhoeven delights in poking fun at convention — think of Showgirls, his tacky dissection of America’s obsession with the spectacle of success. Benedetta is quite a thrill If you’re not shy about sex that is borderline gratuitous, or squeamish about beheadings and plague boils. And a lot of that comes down to the utter conviction of its lead actress, Virginie Efira. Here, in an interview kindly provided by Pathé SBS Productions, Efira shares her experience of working on the film:
Before working with Paul Verhoeven, what was your rapport with his cinema?
Virginie Efira: I took the most obvious entryway into his work, Basic Instinct, which I saw as a teen. I loved it. It reminded me of Vertigo, another of my favorite movies. Later, I saw Starship Troopers, which cracked me up. Paul appropriated all the codes of mainstream American movies and twisted them on the inside, just like the great Hollywood directors of the past. Growing up, I wasn’t very familiar with auteur cinema. Paul’s movies introduced me to it. I also saw Robocop and Total Recall, and later I discovered Turkish Delight, which is a masterpiece in my eyes. When I was offered a part in Elle, I was just beginning to get roles in auteur movies. Elle was a fantastic experience, but I only had eight shooting days. Even so, it was an initial insight into Paul’s working methods. I soon grasped that he wasn’t into playing mind games with his actors. I didn’t detect, however, any inclination on his part for us to work together again. Then I saw him again, and he talked to me about Judith C. Brown’s book for the first time. I had never heard of the story of Benedetta. Paul kept telling me there would be sex scenes, with a girl, and I always replied, “No problem.”
Reading the script, what particularly appealed to you?
I rated the script a masterpiece in the sense that it was operating on every possible level: an epic tinged with poetry, a love story, a period piece, an inner journey… There were a thousand possible ways for the film to explore Paul’s signature themes, which are taken to their ultimate point here. The script opened up to the sky and earth, and that seemed absolutely vast. Also, it was like nothing I had ever read, or seen at the movies. Benedetta is a crazy character. Her story is mad and extraordinarily prodigious.
Throughout the movie, it’s impossible not to wonder how much Benedetta’s actions are rooted in conviction, and how much in manipulation. What did you tell yourself in order to play the character?
To my mind, that is the director’s job. Paul would say, “Maybe so, maybe not.” He always allowed a hint of uncertainty to linger, multiple levels of understanding. He filmed whatever he wanted, and I followed the trajectory I’d chosen, and that worked for me. When I asked Paul how I should prepare for the part, he answered that I should know what I had to do. That’s the ultimate sign of trust in your actress. It made me own the role, and I knew that, with what I came up with, Paul would film something interesting. To take the example of Benedetta’s ambiguity, is it up to me to act ambiguity? Or it up to him to film it? I played Benedetta on a quest, without defining the nature of that quest. I think it’s a multifaceted quest. It cannot be reduced to a specific aspect, such as absolute faith or the most duplicitous scheming. Both aspects feed off each other. Benedetta has a strong belief in Jesus, and she is also looking for power. She is not all sweetness and altruism.
Did you research the relationship that some female mystics have with Jesus?
For the first time, I worked with a coach, which was very interesting. He helped me not only to learn the lines, but also by conducting a kind of psychoanalysis of the character. How does she talk to God? What does that reveal? What is the nature of the connection? What do her visions prevent or release? What does physical climax bring her? It wasn’t about working out how I would play her, just having images in mind. The scene of Benedetta’s resuscitation, there’s no beating around the bush or shooting twelve thousand takes. No, a resuscitation, that’s three takes! Paul told me, “There are things you did that I had never imagined, but it’s very good.” A great compliment.
Benedetta is also ambiguous in her relationship with Bartolomea. She takes sexual pleasure without giving it. Does she feel desire or love? Bartolomea tells her that she doesn’t know how to love, that she’s selfish.
The issue of love intersects with that of faith. What does it mean to love? Is sex love or not love? A huge question. Bartolomea doesn’t seem to believe in Benedetta’s love. It’s like a disavowal for her, as if she were not loved enough. It’s difficult to shine a light on the person whose love is real, and the person whose love is not. What I like with Verhoeven is that as soon as a character begins to feel pure, they are proved wrong. When Bartolomea arrives in the convent, it’s apparent that she has had sex. She has an exuberant physicality. She initiates Benedetta, who turns out to be a quick study. But then is Bartolomea more in love than Benedetta? Benedetta’s quest goes beyond a quick romance whereas Bartolomea, perhaps, simply wants to experience this affair.
Do you think the movie shows religion as a vector of power?
Not all mystics believed in Jesus as a means to obtaining positions of power, but mysticism was often the only way for a woman to climb the social ladder. So is Benedetta doing all this just to get the biggest bedroom all to herself? It’s a fair question.
There are some very surprising scenes, such as the one in the latrines, which are almost more transgressive than the sex scenes.
That keys into what Paul likes about Flemish primitive painters—the revelation of hidden truths, particularly of bodily truths. The sex scenes were very pleasant to do, thanks to Paul, and Daphné of course. A sex scene is easier to perform when you sense that the other actor or actress is at ease, not thinking that something they don’t want to give will be stolen from them. I saw in those scenes both raw sexuality, physical intimacy between two people, and something far more metaphorical. Paul asked me for orgasms, exhorting me, “Louder! Louder!” All in an abbey that was being toured by visitors while we were shooting. I tried but it felt as if I were giving birth to triplets. It’s hard to say if it was anything like an orgasm! And seeing Daphné’s face emerging from between my legs was a kind of epiphany. There was everything in those scenes. It was like a choreography. Paul had storyboarded everything, but he was very open to our suggestions. It was very collaborative and upbeat.
Benedetta and Bartolomea use a Virgin Mary dildo, which seems to sum up a major theme: the conflict between religious taboo and physical desire.
It’s very possible that nuns masturbate at night, while thinking very hard about Jesus. Why not? Does that detract from their belief, their idea of the absolute? No, I don’t think so. Paul had warned me about the dildo. I don’t think his idea was to smash the sacred to bits. No, you’re right, the object sums up the film’s argument and the whole paradox of Benedetta. Religion forbids things, as if it were possible to lock away impulses, desire, urges and the unconscious in a little box. Except it doesn’t work like that.
Do you think Benedetta is a feminist movie?
It’s difficult to define feminism according to Verhoeven, but I remember a phrase from way before we started working together, “Do not feel guilty about your desires.” That resonated with me, and there is some of that in Paul’s movies. His female characters often possess great complexity, and they can use their sexuality and body to their own advantage. With Verhoeven, sexuality is not reserved for men. No, it is also ours.
True, there is all that in Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Black Book… In Benedetta, it ends in a direct confrontation between Benedetta and the Papal Nuncio.
Yes, when she washes his feet, the Nuncio tells her in a pejorative tone that she looks like a whore, to which she replies that he seems very familiar with whores. The dialogue is marvelous. Benedetta fires his line back at him dripping with irony. In his movies, Paul constantly dismantles every certainty. Everything is an enigma for him. And he manages to slip this moral uncertainty into mainstream entertainment. That’s impressive. … Benedetta is a feminist film as long as its subject is a complex heroine and Verhoeven stays with her from beginning to end. Benedetta tries to raise herself above the fray. She makes political decisions that are spot-on: the issue of lockdown arises in the film, which was written and shot way before Covid! There is no plague in Pescia thanks in part to her and her decision to shut the gates of the city. Which incidentally shows that it is not God who saves the city and protects the population from the epidemic.
What was it like working with Daphné Patakia?
Daphné had worked on movies in Greece, notably Tony Gatlif’s Djam. She’s great and naturally close to her character—vibrant and spontaneous. We performed very powerful, intimate acts, and it was very simple with her.
And with Charlotte Rampling?
I didn’t know her, but she is amazing. Her natural authority and imposing beauty create quite a tableau. The whole cast was united in grasping what was at stake in the movie.
Benedetta is set in the 17th century but its themes are still very relevant today: religion, politics, power and desire. Did you sense that and did you discuss it with Paul?
Paul thought a lot about Trump while we were shooting. He was really afraid of the direction being taken in the USA. History advances and evolves over the centuries, but it is always subjected to contradictory currents and the advances of civilization. You think that freedom has been won, but no. I get the feeling that a period movie always resonates with the present. I am happy that in the partisan times we are living in, this film blurs boundaries, with mystery, ambiguity and uncertainty. Benedetta is the opposite of movies or speeches that hammer out simplistic truths. And it is a film of powerful cinematic convictions.
Benedetta is now playing in theaters now and on video on demand on December 21.