CANNES, France – Forgive them, Father, for they have sinned. Repeated! Creative! And wait to hear what they did with this statuette of the Virgin Mary.
The bad girls I mean are Benedetta and Bartolomea, two 17th century lesbian nuns who are the focus of the new drama Benedetta, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday. It’s a delicious, sacrilegious provocation from Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Elle, and at the age of 82, Verhoeven proves to be as playful as ever.
Based on the non-fiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Well in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown, the film follows Benedetta (Virginie Efira), a young nun who is so convinced that she is the bride of Christ she even dreams of a handsome shirtless Jesus who is flirting with her. And why shouldn’t he? Benedetta is a blonde bombshell who looks less like a pious nun from the 17th century and more like a disguised angel for Charlie, and when the pretty peasant woman Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives at the monastery, she also begins to close Benedetta’s eyes do.
Nun versus nun action happens a lot faster than you might expect as this monastery is run by a strict superior (Charlotte Rampling) and Benedetta is prone to visions that end with the manifestation of stigmata. But as her religious ecstasy grows more orgasmic, Benedetta eventually finds a steamy, more earthbound way to chase that high. “Jesus gave me a new heart,” she says to Bartolomea, baring a breast. “Feel it.” (Look, in the 17th century they played foreplay very differently.)
Once their sexual relationship heats up, these nuns find it easy to break their habits, but difficult to break. Finally, a statue of the Virgin Mary is carved into a sex toy and after Benedetta and Bartolomea have, uh, accepted it, the audience at the press screening in Cannes applauds the blasphemous nerve of the film. Verhoeven has always had the gift of making the ridiculous divine, and now the opposite is also true.
Even so, at the press conference for “Benedetta”, Verhoeven insisted that the scene wasn’t blasphemous at all.
“I don’t really see how to gossip about something that happened in 1625,” he said, offering excerpts from Brown’s book. “You can’t change history, you can’t change the things that happened, and I based them on things that happened.”
Maybe, but Verhoeven’s version still gives the truth a bit of a makeover, as Benedetta and Bartolomea always seem to wear eye makeup, foundation, and lipstick. While their faces are never bare, their bodies are often, and would you be surprised to learn that when these lithe nuns undress, they are as toned and well-groomed as a Playboy centerfold? God may be watching in the monastery, but Verhoeven’s gaze trumps everything.
If any spectator rang “Benedetta” because they were serving religious commentary with a side dish of cheesecake, Verhoeven was unmolested. “When people have sex, they generally undress,” said Verhoeven soberly. “I’m basically stunned how we don’t want to look at the reality of life.”
His actresses raised no concerns about their sex scene. “Everything was very happy when we undressed,” said Efira, while Patakia told the news media that when Verhoeven is directing, “You forget that you are naked.”
Even so, they have never lost sight of how much they need to push the boundaries.
“I remember reading the script to myself and thinking, ‘There isn’t a single normal scene,'” said Patakia. “There is always something destabilizing.” She added, “So I said yes right away.”