Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, etc. has always been a horny little altar boy at heart and never has that been more clear than in his new film, Benedetta, a tale of lesbian nuns, politicized Catholicism, and the Bubonic Plague set in Medieval Italy. At 83, it’s nice to see that the man still loves farts, boobs, graphic violence, and sacrilegious imagery as much as ever. As both a Biblical scholar and a nasty little Dutch freak, Benedetta is the movie he was born to make.
Since his heyday as the king of satirical sci-fi action movies in the 90s, Verhoeven has been mostly making European art films lately, compensating for lower special effects budgets with even more sex. Benedetta is the high-water mark of this horny Late Verhoeven phenomenon, a vaguely artistic, deliciously schlocky extended reverie. It grapples with faith, sorta, but it also depicts a Petomane-esque medieval flatulist lighting farts on a stage in the town square inside of the first five minutes. Ah, medieval Vaudeville, these are the kinds of details that really make a story sing.
The plot concerns the title character, whom we first meet as a little girl on the road to a convent with her family (who actually have to pay a dowry to the convent to get Benedetta married off to Christ). Some highwaymen attempt to waylay the family but the devout Benedetta threatens them with divine punishment, some of which seems to miraculously materialize before all of their eyes. Later she becomes a pledge at the nunnery (this is what they’re called, right?) in Pescia, torn between a stern overseer, played by Charlotte Rampling, and Bartolomea, another nun Benedetta had saved from sexual servitude, played by Daphne Patakia. Meanwhile, grown-up Benedetta, played by Virginie Efira, is beset by increasingly intense religious visions — some of which seem to come true, others of which seem to be largely abstract, like when she dreams of a Jesus with a vagina.
The early-middle section of Benedetta, after the setup but before the lead up to the finale, drags a bit, and for a time Benedetta feels as if it’s setting up to be one of those indies that has a collection of charmingly weird elements strung together by too much dull slowness in between. I’ve seen a million of those, and they’re always a drag, both to watch and to review. You want to credit them for the good ideas they contain while remaining honest about the main feeling they evoked while watching, which is boredom. “You know… I liked it when Nicolas Cage wrestled that CGI jaguar but mostly that was shit.”
Benedetta is the rare, almost miraculous, really, two-hour-plus movie (131 minutes, to be precise) that only seems to get better in its second hour. The momentum builds and builds until the action comes to a glorious crescendo, a collision between the plague, Benedetta’s earthly enemies, and her torrid affair with Bartolomea, a finale as delicious as anything I’ve seen this year (including one of its best lines).
Part of the beauty of Paul Verhoeven is that he seems to be a thinking man who doesn’t making thinking man’s movies. His characters rarely yearn silently or morosely reflect; they fuck, fight, fart, betray, torture, and murder. For him, film is not an introvert’s medium, and God bless him for that.