Basic Instinct and Elle director Paul Verhoeven dips his toe into the lesbian nun sub-genre with Benedetta, a darkly comic and provocative drama exploring the overlap between religious devotion and eroticism
“Your worst enemy is your body,” a nun tells a young Benedetta upon her arrival at a convent in Pescia. “Best not to feel too at home with it.” Oddly, however, Benedetta’s relationship with faith is rather bodily: while other nuns at the convent speak of miracles in the abstract, Benedetta seems to have Jesus on the spiritual 17th century equivalent of speed dial.
Colloquially known as the ‘lesbian nun movie’, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (starring Virginie Efira in a pitch-perfect, hammy performance) is based on the true story of a nun who rises to power in her convent after a series of miraculous events mark her as Christ’s chosen bride, all while having an affair with novice nun Sister Bartolomea (a horny, wide-eyed Daphne Patakia). The film is predictably provocative – featuring a very creative use of a Virgin Mary statuette – but alongside its wicked comedy at the expense of the church’s hypocrisy, Benedetta asks whether it’s really so hard to believe that intense religious devotion spills over into eroticism.
Sister Benedetta’s telenovela-esque visions of Jesus are delightfully camp in sensibility, yet Verhoeven’s film balances overwrought hilarity with a complex exploration of truth, politics, and the subjective interpretation of God’s will. It’s left ambiguous whether Benedetta’s miracles are divinely ordained or the result of skilful design – but after all, as Benedetta reminds those who accuse her of blasphemy, God works in mysterious ways. Someone needs to do his work on this earth: why shouldn’t it be a lesbian nun?
Benedetta screened at Glasgow Film Festival, and is released in UK cinemas on 15 Apr via MUBI