Benedetta Paul Verhoeven

Benedetta is a glossy and blasphemous treat

Paul Verhoeven’s latest film mixes sex, violence and fluids in a vicious takedown of systematic power structures.

In Paul Verhoeven’s latest historical film, Benedetta, the living make for inconvenient saints. Adapted from Judith C. Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the film explores the life and trials of a 17th century nun who suffered from erotic and holy visions. She was also accused of sapphism (lesbian) and condemned to death. In the tradition of Black Book and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven brings his glossy and ironic commercial style to the realm of the taboo, tackling the institutional authority of organized religion with playful enthusiasm. 

While indebted to a greater legacy of nunsploitation cinema, this film is also purely Verhoeven, mixing sex, violence and fluids in a vicious takedown of systematic power structures. The film features fart and scat humour, numerous sex scenes, acts of shocking violence and pustulating sores. The human body, so central to the religious experience — particularly within Catholicism — is humiliated and sanctified. All shot with the glossy, overlit style of mainstream cinema and pornography, the body is exposed and torn apart for the viewer’s hungry eyes. 

benedetta Paul Verhoeven

Benedetta is a beguiling character. Wrought with mental illness, she treads a line between holy and demonic. When her body presents the inexplicable symbols of stigmata, some believe her to be a saint, though many also think she’s self-inflicted her wounds. Aside from her visions, she occasionally seems possessed by an angry spirit that barks out insults and commands. Even assuming, as many might have at the time, these are real and true incidents rather than fabrications, where is the line between heaven and hell? 

The stories of saints have constantly exposed this tension. While, most obviously, many stories are fabricated or embellished, the real question should be where do we draw the line between the divine and the dreadful? Why is it that when Christina the Astonishing supposedly rose from the dead, was she later declared a Saint? Why was this seen as miraculous and not monstrous? Though more obviously a fraud or a delusion, taken at face value, the incident strikes as more unsettling than beautiful. The supernatural becomes divine only when convenient and only in service of greater institutional power. 

It’s easy to understand why martyrs make the best saints in this context. Benedetta, a living and breathing woman, threatens the hierarchy of the Church. Her flawed humanity contradicts her perceived holiness, and her paradoxical desires expose the impossible yearnings of the human experience that run in profound contradiction to religious doctrine. Even if her holiness was absolute, it threatens the power of those who control the Church. If her miracles are real, it exposes the cardinals, priests and system as fraudulent. A real miracle poses a more significant threat to religious power than any fraud. 


The beauty and power of the human body exist in deep tension with suffering. Jesus, often depicted on the cross as simultaneously beautiful and profane, embodies these tensions well. The line between pain and pleasure is confused and twisted in the central belief system. Suffering recurs as a theme from the film’s earliest moments. When first dressed in her nun’s costume as a child, she complains that it is itchy and uncomfortable. She’s told, “Suffering is the only way to know Christ.” Self-flagellation, bodily harm and eternal suffering recur again and again. 

Verhoeven cleverly showcases how suffering as a central tenet of belief has its limits. Closing an eye to suffering closes us off from compassion. It holds us back from helping our fellow man. When a Nonce apostolic (a kind of holy ambassador) is riding into the closed-off town, a man suffering from the plague asks for absolution — which he is refused in disgust. The same ambassador of Christ seems to revel in the suffering of the beautiful women under his care. Though not a central question within the film, unquestionably, Verhoeven is quite critical of the actions and obsessions of the highest members of the Catholic Church. Their moral failures are not just personal but systematic, reflecting on the true values of the doomed institution. 

Benedetta Paul Verhoeven
“Suffering is the only way to know Christ”

All these ideas are wrapped up in a glossy style that seems more suited to Sex and the City or high-profile pornography. In turning his back on the overt seriousness of art, he’s able to hold up a twisted mirror to the world and culture he’s mocking. At least with arthouse aesthetics, one senses that you’ve been taken at least somewhat seriously if you’re a target. Verhoeven deflates that idea point-blank through his aesthetic choices. 

The film has already divided audiences and critics since it first screened at Cannes this year. Benedetta‘s brash style and critical ambiguity will not please all audiences. It’s a film with a unique and particularly inflammatory approach to organized religion and grandstanding moralism that prioritizes image and power over actual good. It’s a wild and provocative film: an absolutely delicious experience. 

Benedetta opens in Montreal theatres at Cinéma du Parc on Friday, Dec. 10.

Benedetta, directed by Paul Verhoeven

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