‘Benedetta’ Review: Habit Storming

Close watchers of Paul Verhoeven’s career might conclude that he was always headed toward “Benedetta,” a movie torn equally between the sacred and the profane. Mania, masochism and a sex toy whittled from a figurine of the Blessed Virgin, they’re all here and more in this tale of a randy nun whose religious visions and lustful cravings are rolled into a single ball of blasphemy. In other words, Verhoeven might have aged (he’s now 83), but his love of the lurid has dimmed not one bit.

Nor has his eye for juicy material. Ducking for cover behind the familiar legend, “Inspired by real events” (documented in Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book “Immodest Acts”), the maestro who brought us “Basic Instinct” (1992) and “Showgirls” (1995) plunges us into 17th-century Italy where piety and pestilence are duking it out. Inside the walls of one Tuscan convent, though, all is serene — at least until a statue of the Virgin topples on top of a child novice named Benedetta (Elena Plonka). Immediately, the miraculously unharmed youngster latches on to Our Lady’s bared plaster breast: To Benedetta, earthly and spiritual ecstasy are one and the same.

By the time she’s 18, Benedetta (now played by the gorgeous Virginie Efira) is experiencing erotic visions of a naked Jesus, as sexless as a Ken doll, instructing her to remove her clothing. Her suddenly flowering stigmata and belief that she has a hotline to the Almighty have alienated her fellow nuns, especially when she ousts the convent’s calculating Abbess (a sly Charlotte Rampling) by promising to pray the plague away from the terrified townsfolk. So when Benedetta’s dalliance with a fiery novitiate (Daphne Patakia) — who has been given sanctuary from her rapey father and brothers — is discovered, the Church’s response is conflicted. After all, there’s money in miracles.

Unable to decide if its namesake is saint or sinner, genuine mystic or false prophet, “Benedetta” is too ambivalent to find focus or resolution. Still, Verhoeven brings more vitality to his work than many filmmakers half his age, and his screenplay (with David Birke) is a tasteless hoot, gleefully cramming the frame with blood, fornication and flagellations galore. Without philosophizing over religious repression — or who gets to adjudicate Divine intent — the movie presents lesbianism as a middle finger to Church power, insisting that bodily pleasures don’t have to be bad for the soul. Should this be Verhoeven’s swan song, that’s a perfectly fine sign-off.

Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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