Controversial and audacious, Paul Verhoeven remains one of the singular directors in cinema. Verhoeven conquered genre after genre throughout his career, even as many of his films left audiences cold upon their release. In a media landscape that has pushed sexuality and eroticism out of mainstream films, Showgirls, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct continue to strike at a societal nerve. While Verhoeven left Hollywood behind with Elle in 2016, many hoped the director would return for one more film. Instead, Verhoeven’s five-year hiatus ends with the release of Benedetta, a fiery and upsetting film about women and Catholicism. With his latest film, the famed director continues to traffic in exploitation and sexuality. Yet like any master, he expertly manipulates the subjects that cemented his iconic status for decades.
Benedetta opens on a young girl forced into Church service as a young girl. Her parents believe she must serve, and over time Benedetta unravels complicated questions about her sexuality and purpose through a life of servitude. A decade after her commitment to the habit, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) begins to see visions of Christ in her life. These visions coincide with the arrival of a new woman to the convent, the rugged and world-weary Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). The two connect instantly, eventually transitioning the relationship from one based on guilt to one of lust.
Soeur Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) grows concerned about the relationship between the women, but she cannot stop their passionate pursuit. Then, Benedetta appears possessed by none other than Jesus. Despite evidence suggesting Benedetta is a fraud, clergymen and Church leaders arrive at the small town as a plague ravages the surrounding countryside. As Benedetta’s afflictions and possession grow stronger, she gains power within the parish.
As usual, Verhoeven’s tale aims at the institutions that assert dominant ideologies on communities and towns. The extraordinarily masculine and wrathful Church looks to silence Benedetta’s voice. After all, why would the Son of God choose to inhabit a woman? Yet, these are the very people the Church will not allow to take the pulpit, and for much of the film, the men believe they can manipulate Benedetta to spew their propaganda and ideology. At its heart, Benedetta looks to break our reliance on large groups to find our way instead of asking us to look internally for the change we seek.
Also present in the film is an alarming advance of the plague from beyond the walls. Shot in 2018 and delayed by the director’s health, Verhoeven and his Benedetta team could not have anticipated the relevance this would have to the viewer upon its release in 2021. However, taking the sickness surrounding the town as a metaphor, one can quite easily draw lines between the silenced women and the encroaching threats that men in power have bungled. A virus ravaging the countryside feels a bit on the nose, but the film’s initial production schedule started two full years before Covid. The death, fear, and eventual uprising against Church set up the “eat the rich” dialogue that devolved into memes over the past few years.
In the aftermath of #MeToo, Verhoeven lays the trackwork for women to gain meaningful power. He places the Church’s stranglehold on the community at the center of the frame. The town where Benedetta and the convent reside attempts to establish its sovereignty. However, the village and region cannot act outside their commitments to the Church. Despite the active suppression of free thought and non-heteronormative relationships, Verhoeven puts power into the hands of his women.
Efira, Rampling, and Patakia expertly draw us into their emotional state and convey a combination of fear, exploitation, and strength through their performances. Efira unleashes on her fellow actors, violently fluctuating between the delicate Benedetta introduced to the audience and the “possessed” woman emphatically preaching new doctrines.
Any Catholic knows guilt courses throughout the religion, and Efira displays her internal battles through subtle performance choices. As she struggles with guilt and her newfound power, Efira walks a fine line between sadness and giddiness. It makes for an unforgettable performance that keeps the audience questioning whether the events are indeed from God or a woman finding the only way to control her life. As she explores her sexuality, she breaks through roadblocks with every act. While empowering, she also repurposes the various idols that have given her power. The line between camp and genuine character growth is often ambiguous. Efira’s performance keeps us questioning the legitimacy of her newfound strength.
Rampling excels again, playing a woman stuck the power of the coin and management of the Church. Her position in the Church grants her the authority she needs to control her world. With this power comes the Earthly pleasures that wealth provides. As her character’s motivations shift and her loyalties change, Rampling adds an intensity of a woman losing her path. In her mania, she finds a new power. Rampling has a masterful control of her emotions and perfectly pitches her performance to compliment the film’s needs.
While Benedetta will undoubtedly drive many away, it will be one of the more exciting films of 2021 for many. Seeing Verhoeven’s commitment to his style is something to behold. Few filmmakers ever marry political dialogue, violence, and sex to satisfying results. With Benedetta, Verhoeven builds on a career of contemporary exploitation, adding another upsetting but entertaining piece to the tapestry of his career.