Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].
The Pick: Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven Retrospective)
Cinapse is relaunching Two Cents for 2024 with a focus on cinematic discovery and discussion. This column is intended to generate points of connection as cinephiles revisit beloved classics or explore new territory together. We’ll kick things off with a curated month of Paul Verhoeven titles that our team was eager to either revisit or experience for the first time. After Ed’s Robocop revisit and Dan’s critique of Showgirls, Julian’s up to pay tribute to Verhoeven’s latest feature, Benedetta. Raved and reviled at international film festivals before bringing down the house at a Fantastic Fest Secret Screening in 2021, Benedetta has enjoyed no shortage of acclaim and controversy befitting its director’s fiendishly provocative filmography. Now hot off the heels of the announcement of Verhoeven’s latest project–the erotic political thriller Young Sinner–Julian and this week’s contributors return to 17th Century Italy to revisit a film that’s remained one of Julian’s modern icons of Queer cinema ever since that fateful 2021 screening.
What stood out to me in this rewatch of Benedetta is how delicately Verhoeven balances sincerity and sacrilege. Sure, there’s the lurid hook we’d expect from the director of Showgirls or Basic Instinct given in the film’s true story, depicting an illicit lesbian affair conducted amid a renaissance catholic church. However, it’s this pulpy jumping-off point that allows Verhoeven to explore the contradictions between holy lives and earthly delights in ways that still resound to modern audiences. Collar-clutching imagery abounds–from how Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and novice nun/lover Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) fashion new uses for a Virgin Mary statue, to a sword-slinging Christ whose mortal form transcends more Church-sanctioned ideas of gender and virtue. The shock of this imagery–and Verhoeven’s unabashed embrace of it–provokes us to question why these elements have that repulsive power, and what forces instilled those beliefs in us.
The bastions of morality in Benedetta are anything but. Abbesses take gold donations to prioritize the salvation of “brides” offered to Christ and papal nuncios use judicial proceedings to ensure a patriarchal status quo. When miracles come, be them easily explained or truly mystifying, there’s barely a beat before the powers that be find ways to monetize and exploit them. And if a woman dares challenge the authority of the Church–be it by her miracles or her choice of partner–she is quickly met with silencing torture, subjugation, or being ostracized. The lesbian romance at the core of Benedetta may be criminal in the eyes of the Church– but becomes something to champion in the face of such moral hypocrisy. In a world where women’s agency is reduced to motherhood or convent life, embracing fervent Queerness in the midst of seizing influence from diabolically patriarchal forces is justifiably seen as the most effective act of rebellion possible.
At the same time, Verhoeven maturely refuses to confirm or deny the truth behind Benedetta’s visions and miracles. Did this woman earnestly experience religious epiphanies, seemingly confirming the existence (and by extension authority) of the Holy Trinity? Did she merely use this iconography to seize a power afforded to few other women? Or is it a mixture of both, with Benedetta dovetailing belief and desire to enact powerful change? To Verhoeven, proclaiming one truth over another would be to assume the same authority as the villains of Benedetta–with individual choice and belief paramount over everything else.
Benedetta is a film of provocative delight, lampooning the organizations we deem worthy of protecting faith while reverently respecting the very human craving to believe in something divine–or something far more debased.(@Gambit1138 on X)
It’s a well known fact in the world of Cinapse that I’m the weirdo around here. I like shitty genre films unironically and rarely enjoy the awards circuit fare. Even fellow weirdos like Dan at least enjoy the Oscar bait, but not I. Sure Oppenheimer looks good, but I’d much rather spend my night watching a 90s SOV flick or some random found footage flick on Tubi.
I present this to explain where I’m coming from when I tell you that – to me – Benedetta is “Nunsploitation for Normies”. Having watched numerous lesbian themed exploitation films over the years and a variety of salacious Nunsploitation “classics”, I can’t help but feel like the majority of Benedetta feels like Verhoeven making such a film that can capture a wider audience than most films in this subgenre. So, while it’s still clearly not for everyone, it’s surely going to be a bit more accessible than The Devils or Alucarda.
Naturally, the moments in this film I enjoy most are intense sex scenes and the more off the wall moments. If I could get more graphic sex and sword wielding Jesus dream sequences, I’d be fully in… but as it stands, I dig this film but vastly prefer the less accessible and more scandalous exploitation gems in the Nunsploitation subgenre.
That said, if you want to dip your toe into the world of Nunsploitation but aren’t yet ready for the notorious “Rape of Christ” just yet, this is a great place to start.(@thepaintedman on X)
Nearly three years removed from its Cannes premiere, Paul Verhoeven’s ludicrous lesbian epic Benedetta is situated comfortably in the S-tier of the Dutch provocateur’s filmography. Deftly juggling a wide array of tones, the film is as recognizably a work from the director of the harrowing Black Book as it is from the man responsible for Showgirls, the now-vindicated satire of American sexual mores. Perhaps what truly elevates Benedetta is its disarming sincerity. Though engaging in some heretical behavior (the softcore scene with the Virgin Mary dildo feels straight out of The Devils), the sapphic nun at the center of the film (brought to life so gracefully by Virginie Efira) is genuine in her religious devotion and a far more authentic follower of Christian teachings than the hypocrites in the film, or those of today’s world for that matter. A movie with CGI Jesus action sequences and a pooping lesbian nun meet-cute is clearly intending to shock, yet both Benedetta Carlini and the film bearing her name display tenderness and love as well. Somewhere between Dreyer and Ken Russell, this brazen piece of auteurism finds its salvation at the junction where the sacred meets the profane.(@FilmEmmaJames on Instagram)