Going into Benedetta, my first movie of the 59th New York Film Festival, I wasn’t sure whether to expect the most extreme film from provocateur Paul Verhoeven or the least. After all, the material being covered here, in part at least, could lead to some true insanity from the filmmaker. At the same time, a religiously themed period piece could, if the mood struck him, remove some of his more outlandish tendencies. I’m, perhaps surprisingly, able to report that both elements are true. Moreover, Benedetta manages to be even more entertaining than expected because of it. Playing at NYFF, it’s a devilish historical delight, offering a lot of fun, provided you’re down with Verhoeven’s perspective on the world.
Benedetta is funny, ridiculous, sarcastic, sexy, and consistently compelling. That’s the secret sauce here. Despite potential for something plodding, it never even comes close to being boring. Avoiding boredom is clutch here, since so many other films of this ilk, not helmed by Verhoeven, would end up with that fate. Now, on the flip side of the equation, it’s fair to wonder if this movie adds up to much. It could well be more of a shallow endeavor than usual for the director, but damn if it doesn’t entertain more than you think it will.
Based (loosely, I’m assuming) on a true story, this is the story of a girl named Benedetta (Virginie Efra as an adult). Brought to a 17th-century Italian convent, she’s all too eager to become a nun. Quickly, she realizes that some, like the head of the convent (Charlotte Rampling), see religion as more of a business than a calling. When a poor young woman named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) seeks shelter, she seems drawn to her. Soon, the two are doing a dangerous dance of flirtation.
Suffering from visions of both an erotic and religious nature (sometimes at the same time), Benedetta balances her attraction to Bartolomea, one she keeps at bay, with the younger woman’s more aggressive passes. Eventually, a passionate affair starts, right as Benedetta proclaims to have stigmata. Some proclaim her to be special, pushing her for the convent’s top position, though others see her as a con artist. Eventually, it comes to the attention of a top church agent (Lambert Wilson). Is she truly touched or just conniving for power? And what of this relationship? Is it doomed or is there a chance for these two women?
The performances by Virginie Efira and Charlotte Rampling are spot on. Daphne Patakia is solid, but it’s Efira and Rampling who shine. They have wonderful chemistry with each other, antagonistically speaking, while Efira and Patakia have a fire between them. Watching those two permutations are a delight. Efira especially is so good here, making Benedetta the smartest person in the room, but also always a bit of a mystery. Supporting players include Louise Chevillotte, Hervé Pierre, Olivier Rabourdin, the aforementioned Lambert Wilson, and more.
Paul Verhoeven and his co-writer David Birke are certainly going for it here. At the same time, Benedetta shows more restraint than you might expect. Birke and Verhoeven litter their screenplay with one-liners and venomous sarcasm, making this closer to a comedy than you realize. The script is a bit shallow, but it’s certainly clever. It’s all over the place, tonally, but did you expect anything less? Directing-wise, Verhoeven has some very shocking images, but again, nothing wilder than anything he’s done before. It just happens to be him at close to the height of his provoking powers, without ever turning it into something you can’t enjoy.
Benedetta has all the makings of a cult film. Now, playing at NYFF, after a debut at the Cannes Film Festival, lends it a feeling of prestige, but this is high end trash (meant as a compliment). The movie is fun, and if it’s trashy, it’s the sort of trashy you yearn for from someone like Verhoeven. Give it a shot, provided you dig his stuff, and you’ll likely have a blast with it.