He first shocked Cannes, then the New York Film Festival (where a group of outraged Catholics protested when the film was screened). Paul Verhoeven’s latest controversial film, Benedetta, might be released in Italian cinemas this December.
Based on a true story, the script was adapted by Verhoeven himself, along with scriptwriter David Jirke, from the 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith Brown. The story is about a 17th century nun who shakes the status quo of the convent she joins after having disquieting erotic and religious visions that lead her to start a love affair with another nun. Recently interviewed by the online paper Deadline, Verhoeven commented on the impact the film had and on the controversy it can spark: “People can be inspired by the sacred. I believe that the characters in Benedetta, at that time, were in a world where the sacred was dominant. So, in the movie, I felt it needed to be there. The idea that the church could decide that a woman should be killed because she was a lesbian is quite horrible. Isn’t it?”.

Sex and religion, different types of violence, a little statue of the Virgin Mary, used inappropriately. Behind it all is the true story of Benedetta Carlini, abbess of Pescia, Tuscany, starting from 1591, a mystic visionary who was tried because of her affair with a young nun. On the daily La Repubblica, Emiliano Morreale wrote: “The version by 82 year-old film director Paul Verhoeven is very loosely based on the true, historical events. The dialogues and characters are very modern, just as the whole idea of sex, women, power and money. The latter is perhaps the real topic of the film: everything is being either sold or purchased and it all depends on the gaps between social classes. In fact, the Dutch film director doesn’t really focus on the religious aspect, which he plays down with several, ironic, tacky and picturesque scenes that are somewhat predictable (mystic-erotic visions were portrayed as a parody already in A clockwork orange). On the contrary, he prefers to zero in on sex and power, on evil and good women”.

According to Marzia Gandolfi (MyMovies), “Verhoeven works on Judith Brown’s historiographic research, and he does a very good job which however leaves some (relevant) questions unanswered: was Benedetta a manipulating mythomaniac or a prophetess? Was she a saint who had supernatural contacts with Christ or was she a lesbian having sex with Bartolomea? Paul Verhoeven, allergic to all forms of Manichaeism, stands exactly where we expected to find him: in the grey, shady areas of desire and faith. And in his films, shadows always stimulate the flesh. Obscenity creates invisibility, because showing is the very principle of cinema for a brutal, untamed author, whom we cannot simply label as moral or immoral. It would be somewhat vain. Benedetta gives no break whatsoever to the religious and self-righteous. It blatantly takes the mick of the hypocrisies of an institution that can either sanctify or burn on the stake, depending on its mood and political interests. But the focal point is Verhoeven’s desire to do what he’s always been good at. Literally vomiting both sublime and grotesque elements, he etches the surface, aided by his heroine, sorceress, witch, who constantly looks over fiction. In the theatre of cruelty – namely, history – Verhoeven’s women, all of them, ‘don’ an unmistakable mix of honesty and simulation. Benedetta houses furious mysticism, she is literally in love with Christ and she won’t settle for simply imagining a carnal relationship with the virile avatars of Jesus in her fiery dreams. She’d rather bend faith to her will and desire for Bartolomea, a low social class young nun whom she finds irresistible”.

So, apparently it is not a sin if we sit back and eagerly wait for Benedetta to be released.