The marketing wasn’t lying. Benedetta, the latest from legendary Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, really is an epic sass-fest in which obscenely attractive nuns play power games against each other for God’s approval. On a higher level, though, it’s another taste of the director’s distinct blend of irreverence we’ve enjoyed since Robocop.
Starring Virginie Efira as the titular nun, whose lifelong devotion sprang out of numerous childhood encounters with the divine, Benedetta largely focuses on the turbulent years in which she acrimoniously rose to the summit of the Theatine convent in Pescia, Tuscany. But the story really begins when Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a vulnerable peasant girl whose life is saved by entry to the Theatines, shows Benedetta a slightly different way to experience holiness.
Mother Superior Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) is none the wiser, but her daughter Christina (Louise Chevillotte) knows something is up. Cue chaos, intrigue and an epic power struggle for control of the Theatines – and, by extension, Pescia itself.
Meanwhile, there’s a plague. The battle to protect Pescia from the unknown and therefore spare its people from the devil becomes another frontier in the war for the Theatines. (All of Bendetta is a rollicking joy, but the dramatic weight of these scenes particularly resonates, for obvious reasons.)
Any more details would frankly spoil the movie, which depends in large part on a multitude of profoundly satisfying and unexpected twists and turns. Benedetta may have a religious setting, and even something to say about the nature of religion itself, but it never once stops being a deeply entertaining movie about people who can’t seem to coexist. It has both the emotional intensity and sexual intrigue of Jarman’s Edward II, with Bartomolea proving a more-than-satisfactory substitute for devilish charmer Piers Gaveston.
When the Nuncio of Florence (Lambert Wilson) visits, he observes cannily: “This convent seems barely bound by the possible.” But Benedetta is based on an incredible true story. Verhoeven starts the film with information and ends it with information, which is a slight shame. The entire runtime he’s been showing, rather than telling – to brilliant effect. Letting us experience the narrative intrigue he teases at the end would have only added to Bendetta’s charms.
Presumably he was concerned about the runtime, which at 130 minutes isn’t small. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d say they were willing to watch 130 more.