I’m glad that cinemas showing Benedetta are already being protested outside of. It is wonderful that Paul Verhoeven, who has made some of my favourite films, can still make a film that causes such a visceral reaction. Alas, it would be much more satisfying if Verhoeven had made a film that justified getting even slightly hot under the collar about. This rather dull affair, punctuated by voyeuristic fetishism, is a well-to-do The Devils; hell, it even feels like a restrained Black Narcissus. It may have the imagery to offend on a surface level (nude nuns and some bloody violence) but the overall feel of the film is restrained, even banal.
Here, we are in the late 17th Century in a convent in Pescia, Tuscany. Benedetta is one of the nuns, we see how she joins the order (as a child) then flash forward to her adulthood. An early plot point involves another nun, of a similar age, being taken in. This nun becomes the roommate of Benedetta, and a confidant of sorts. This being a Verhoeven movie, a female relationship obviously becomes the vehicle for softcore porn. It would be easy to describe this as a lesbian nun film, but, Verhoeven’s perspective and framing doesn’t sell this at all. Here, the nuns are objects of his gaze, performing for the camera and not moving beyond a very cinematic lust. There is no boiling tension, no understanding of repression, it is just the plot and character points you expect pulled off as you would also expect.
There is a base thrill to this, it is inherently blasphemic and some of the ideas on display are darkly fun. Yet, the filmmaking dulls so much of this. The visuals remain uninspired, creating very little on a cinematic level and not digging into anything. Where the films this work clearly springs from have such atmosphere, such hysteria and actually a sensual feel, this feels merely demonstrative. The psychological realm is left unopened and even the dream sequences are much more interesting on paper than on the screen. Jesus appearing and slicing up some snake sounds cool, but it all looks a bit silly. There’s no passion in the filmmaking here, no fire to conjure up the brimstone and blasphemy that the film needs. It is all rather bland.
It is such a shame, even more of a shame when a 2021 film feels so far behind a film from 1971. But, alas, Verhoeven’s Benedetta is a mumbled transgression in a world of outrageous cinema. It would be inoffensively bland and at least conceptually interesting if it didn’t feel so creepily fetishistic. The central sexual relationship is so overtly false, so performative, that it’s hard to not feel uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. It all feels a bit like an old man living out his fantasies on screen… Maybe that’s just because that’s what it is.
If only his fantasies were more compelling.