Nunsploitation is a genre with a mostly forgotten history. The height of nunsploitation was from the late sixties to the early eighties in (mostly Catholic) European countries, alongside other, more celebrated exploitation genres like Giallo and spaghetti western, according to the online film journal Offscreen in an article about the subject. The article posits that the perception of nunsploitation as adult films, while somewhat valid, keeps the films from being fully appreciated and canonized like the works of Dario Argento and Sergio Leone, who are now considered masters of the craft. It took a while for the critical reevaluation of Giallo and spaghetti western films to occur. Maybe the release of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta last year will provide the same opportunity for nunsploitation.
One of the best movies of 2021, Benedetta is loosely based on the real-life story of the nun, Benedetta Carlini (who is played by Virginie Efira in the film), as told in the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown. Benedetta is plagued with visions, so she is assigned a companion, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli (Daphne Patakia). The nuns’ relationship quickly turns sexual, despite their vows of chastity and the church’s belief that homosexuality is a sin. Benedetta was written and directed by Paul Verhoeven. His past work includes the quintessential thriller, Basic Instinct, along with a diverse output that includes Robocop, Showgirls, Black Book, and Elle, to just name a few.
In terms of entertainment, Benedetta faithfully delivers the same lurid sleaze as the nunsploitation classics that you’d expect from what many describe as “Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun movie.” If nothing else, the film continues the storied tradition of protest surrounding the director’s oeuvre, with Benedetta‘s New York premiere drawing a small crowd of Catholics to loudly oppose the screening, despite his insistence that the film is not blasphemous. However, all the noise surrounding the film’s controversial concept overlooks its actual content. Like in most of his work, a lot is going on just beneath the surface.
In honor of the film making its streaming debut on Hulu, let’s explore the themes and motifs within Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta.
Benedetta: The Catholic Critique
Unsurprisingly, Benedetta is essentially an interrogation of different aspects of religion, specifically Catholicism, something Paul Verhoeven is intimately familiar with. Specifically, Verhoeven is deeply passionate about understanding the historical Jesus Christ, going so far as to write a whole book about the subject entitled Jesus of Nazareth. At the most basic level, the film condemns the church’s perspective on sexuality and LBGTQIA+ rights, but the movie almost treats that as a truism as it has more complex issues to explore.
At the film’s core are the questions about Benedetta’s inner world. Are Benedetta’s visions the result of divine intervention or mental illness? Does Benedetta truly believe her experiences are holy, or is she orchestrating the seemingly supernatural events behind the scenes? Does Benedetta love Bartolomea, or is she just using her? Verhoeven refuses to give simplistic answers to these questions and lets the audience figure out what they believe. It’s also entirely possible that these questions are false binaries and that the truth is somewhere in between.
Benedetta could have been entertaining if it clearly presented all of Benedetta’s motivations and actions, but it would have been a lot more forgettable. Leaving the audience unsure about how they feel about Benedetta’s character makes it worthy of discussion. It’s hard not to see parallels between this and Verhoeven’s other work. In the hands of another filmmaker, a movie like Robocop could just have been a fun action movie about a robot cop. Instead, it’s also a trenchant satire about privatization, a Jesus metaphor, and an exploration of what it means to be human. Verhoeven’s films can be enjoyed without much effort, but their layered approach rewards additional analysis.
Benedetta: Plagues, Then & Now
Benedetta was already in post-production when the COVID-19 pandemic rattled the world. Despite this, the film’s setting during the Black Death provides parallels to our current moment. Throughout the movie, characters refuse to quarantine, especially those in power. In those moments, it’s hard not to think of recent events like Kim Kardashian’s private island birthday party or Ted Cruz’s retreat to Mexico. The way the plague subtly becomes more of an issue throughout the movie’s run time is also reminiscent of watching coronavirus spread throughout the world until it hit a breaking point and social distancing began. These similarities were likely accidental, but they nonetheless exist and further prove Verhoeven’s eerie precognitive abilities.
Paul Verhoeven’s films tend to be misunderstood upon release, only to be re-evaluated later. Whether it’s Showgirls or Starship Troopers, audiences have finally come around to his most controversial work. Benedetta had a much warmer initial reception than either of those two films and is about as subtle as a brick in its messaging. However, considering it’s still widely known as “that lesbian nun movie” and that some people still don’t understand Verhoeven’s films, its complexity could be overlooked and forgotten like its nunsploitation predecessors. Instead, Benedetta should be remembered as a powerful work with insightful commentary on religion and other cultural institutions.