Film Review: Benedetta – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: David Birke and Paul Verhoeven

Director: Paul Verhoeven

So bad, it’s good? Not quite. This overblown drama about lesbian nuns in plague-ridden Italy in the early 1600s is supposedly based on a true story. With clunky dialogue, nudity, blasphemy and stylised violence there’s plenty to enjoy in Paul Verhoeven’s new film, but little to admire.

Of course, Verhoeven has done this thing before, mostly famously in Basic Instinct and most infamously in Showgirls. The latter is often cited as one of the worst films ever made, and has since become essential viewing. Benedetta will probably have the same fate. Its saving grace is Charlotte Rampling, who seems to ignore all the camp silliness around her and pretends that she is in a Louis Malle film instead.

Benedetta has been a Theatine nun since a child; her parents offered her up to God when she was saved from an illness that nearly killed her as an infant. Despite Benedetta’s early religious fervour, not much praying goes on in the convent in Pescia, and Rampling’s Abbess is more interested in money than faith, openly declaring that her order is not a charity. But when Bartolomea arrives as a novice nun, Benedetta finds herself in a fix. She now desires Christ – already rippling with muscles in her imagination –  and the new strange young woman who knows so much more about the world.

It doesn’t take long for the two women to have sex, and these scenes and the countless other scenes containing nudity, seem made for the male gaze. The other nuns wear wimples and hide their hair under caps. Benedetta and Bartolomea wear lipstick, and their hair cascades onto their shoulders. And from very early on you begin to fear for the statuette of the Virgin Mary.

Benedetta believes that having sex with Bartolomea brings her closer to God, and this is proved when she starts bleeding from her hands and her feet. Some nuns and priests see these stigmata as a sign that Benedetta has been chosen by God to protect the town from the plague that rips through nearby Florence while others, including the Abbess, are certain that the wounds are self-inflicted.

Virginie Efira has great fun as Benedetta whose cause would be more sympathetic if she weren’t so much of a sadist. Efira looks breathlessly excited when she orders her lover to plunge her arm in boiling water to retrieve some bobbins. Also getting into the spirit of things is Daphné Patakia as Bartlolmea; she moves convincingly from seducer to seduced, and yet never looks alarmed at how things spiral out of control.  Rampling plays it straight, and fortunately manages to keep hold of her habit while everyone else loses theirs.

Benedetta is silly and tasteless, and the kind of film that students would watch in the 1980s. Usually nuns are portrayed with repressed desire, but subtlety is definitely not a quality listed on Verhoeven’s CV.

Benedetta is screening at the London Film Festival.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Label under ‘cult’

The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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