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Get Thee to a Nunnery

In “Benedetta,” cloistered sexuality breaks free

We’re unsure, at first, whether to take her as a fraud, a mesmeric storyteller, or a woman improvising to survive. The nun writes that her faithless parents, loath to forfeit a costly dowry for an unloved love child, coerced her into God’s service. It’s eighteenth-century France, where Christ is a cheaper but more binding bridegroom than mortal man. Now, after years languishing in a convent, she desires freedom, a benevolent intercessor, and would the Marquis de Croismare be so kind? A memoir of restive captivity unfurls across her letters. To stoke the reader’s pathos, she casts herself as an ingénue, though she remains canny enough to convince, refining her artlessness into art on the page. Like every good Christian woman since Eve, she must elude sin without seeming to recognize it. Such a balancing act ensures flubs on behalf of the performer. The woman stays forever young and, more absurdly, laments her Mother Superior’s advances while purporting to be naive of sex. Her efforts to appear true cancel out whatever truth she is telling.

Of course, if a story stirs you, why fret the inconsistencies? For the polymath Denis Diderot, who penned this sham correspondence in order to lure his absent friend back to Paris, fiction outlived fact. The Marquis de Croismare replied decorously through the mail but didn’t budge from Normandy; sans costar, the nun ran out of lines. No matter: Diderot retread the character for the rest of his days, polishing the prank into a magazine serial and then a novel proper. In 1796, The Nun was published to a post-revolutionary public so primed for its tale of narrow systems and spurned self-rule that defenders and detractors alike handled it as gingerly as a white-hot polemic. The zeitgeisty book was twice-banned by the restored Bourbons; in the next century, Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film adaptation drew ire from the Gaullist government until the New Wave fashioned it into a cause célèbre. Satire, heresy, structural game, schmaltz—everyone could see what they wanted to see in its pages.

Somehow, the nun’s fake account coils in on itself, becoming more compelling as it sheds any pretense of authenticity. So notes Diderot’s “preface” to the novel, comprising backstory and edited forms of the original text, which is appended like a wink after the narrative:

If somebody had picked up the first version of the letters in the street, they would have said: “They’re beautiful, really beautiful,” and if they had picked up the final version, they would have said: “They’re really true.” Which are the good ones? Those that would perhaps have earned admiration? Or those that were certain to create the illusion of reality?

In other words: Which do you prefer, reality or illusion? To know or to feel? And does knowing attenuate what we feel to be true, namely, our faith? These are questions that animate the work of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who, like Diderot, veneers subversion with the visceral pleasures of popular storytelling. For structure, he routinely plunders genre cinema—science fiction, thriller, musical, period piece, action, adventure—sourcing prefab templates and stock iconographies that are ready to be scrambled, rearranged. Diderot himself pilfered the trendy epistolary mode of The Nun from Samuel Richardson’s provocative, then-best-selling novel Clarissa, which Elizabeth Hardwick dissected as “a fabric of surfaces, a mask . . . self-justifying.” Letters, like films, address an audience. Both aim to please. Ever the consummate showman, Verhoeven gluts viewers on what they want and some of what they don’t, or else wouldn’t confess to wanting: a car chase, a gunfight, shit, sacrilege, prodigal blood, gyrating bodies in flagrante, the push-pull of Eros and Thanatos.

“In fact, he loves clichés,” remarked Rivette in a Senses of Cinema interview, meaning to praise. “I loved it,” said Verhoeven, jarringly, in a Film Comment interview, meaning the juvenile thrills of World War II. Loving clichés, war worst of all, is risky: you can lose your bearings amid the bombed-out refuse. But how do horrors happen unless a critical mass of perpetrators loves something: a credo, a common myth, mastery? Hence Verhoeven will flourish a trope like “heroism” and then linger on a prolonged shot of someone heedlessly stepping over a lifeless bystander who our hero had just used as a human shield, prompting us to wonder: Is this what we want to believe in? Yet his films thrum along to their satisfying finale. The protagonist prevails. Yes, Verhoeven impishly vexes our beliefs, but he stops short of renouncing their manifest charms. On the contrary, he revels in them, blurring blasphemy and devotion, camp and careful taste. I almost want to term it escapist realism, which doesn’t make sense, until I remember that’s what faith resembles to the nonbeliever. Faith fuses form and content in Verhoeven’s latest, Benedetta (2021), about a nun who, like Diderot’s, might be a sincere fake, a pious pragmatist, an applause-addicted actress—or a saint.

Box-Office Busts

Verhoeven might be a saint, too, if a saint is someone who suffers fitful spells of bliss and ostracism. His first success was Turkish Delight (1973), an anti-romance whose outré swain proclaims, as Benedetta could but shrewdly doesn’t, that he “fucks better than God.” A few controversial, accoladed features followed, screeching to a halt with Spetters (1980), a blue-collar dirt-bike flick that revved up a widespread furor. “In lieu of producing either a social commentary or a gleefully hedonistic joyride,” writes Adam Nayman of the film in his agile apologia, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, “Verhoeven did both.” A recurrent refrain went that his misplaced sympathies tempted cinemagoers into mistakenly savoring sin.

Just as Denis Diderot did in The Nun, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven veneers subversion with the visceral pleasures of popular storytelling.

Semi-exiled, Verhoeven defected from the Netherlands and, after assimilating Reagan-era America, directed RoboCop (1987), in which a mechanized policeman extrajudicially executes suspects in a derelict Detroit. Calling the shots is a corporation that’s implicated in the rising crime rate, as it pushes for more punitive laws and a privatized security state. So-called excessive violence, especially a scene of another mechanofficer gunning down a layman, was restricted by the MPAA, though not by U.S. law enforcement. The film raked in enough ($53.4 million) to spawn sequels that misconstrued cops as the solution rather than the symptom.

After a string of stateside hits, Verhoeven’s career cleaved anew with Showgirls (1995). The backstage musical found itself pilloried by audiences, late-night talk-show hosts, and the Razzies—where Verhoeven gamefully took his licks, marching back and forth to the podium seven times to receive his “worst” awards—simply for being a profusive, skin-deep, exceedingly plausible fable about how, in the cutthroat free market of show business, sex equals money. When Starship Troopers landed two years later, critics had forsaken him. The saga of blithe high school grads—who after being shipped off to decimate a foreign race and its rumored weapons of mass destruction, sour into haggard, expendable veterans in an endless, ill-defined military engagement—overstates its “gung-ho patriotism,” per Janet Maslin, though it “provides a flaming catharsis.” The more despised the film, the greater its potential to be retrojected as prophecy.

Misinterpretation, however, underpins the films’ very design, an extratextual incarnation of cinema’s slippery visual medium. Just because we can see something doesn’t mean we know what it means, that we’re even capable of knowing. Watching Verhoeven’s oeuvre, spanning seventeen theatrical releases across fifty years, I often feel benignly gaslighted: don’t worry that you’re muddling symbols, doubting your senses, perplexed by people and their mazy motives; so is everyone. Consider Basic Instinct (1992), from his Hollywood heyday. Its most indelible image is of Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), glacial and aloof in a white minidress, uncrossing two tan legs to bare her privates at a police inquiry—but in that scene, she reveals nothing. Audacity is her alibi. She has adopted an alias (a classic Verhoeven tactic) to author pulp paperbacks about crimes that afterward transpire tantalizingly within her orbit. She robes and disrobes impassively in view of an enthralled detective-cum-lover who tries to go deeper, that is, beneath the skin. If ultimately the probing camera crystallizes her guilt, we alone notice. Uncovering herself serves to cover up more intimate privacies.

Nowhere is this method more apparent than in Total Recall (1990), where walls crumble and the matte-painted backdrops signal a cardboard unreality. Depending on your angle, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays either a disaffected construction worker whose memories as a double agent (a classic Verhoeven archetype) on airless Mars were expunged by a sinister monopoly, or the same, except he’s been willfully implanted with synthetic, self-aggrandizing memories by a company suggestively called Rekall, which touts mental vacations to Mars that guarantee “your brain will not know the difference.” Neither do we. Our suspicions flare when one Dr. Edgemar arrives on the planet to impugn the “bullshit” diegesis: not only is our protagonist still strapped to an earthbound operating chair, the doctor contends, but while his brain hemorrhages, his mind is stuck unspooling the intricate reverie we have been witnessing—to wit, the movie. But then Edgemar drips sweat: too bodily, perhaps, to be disembodied. It’s all the proof Schwarzenegger needs to resolutely assume the role of spy. Uncertainty isn’t so much resolved as dispatched. And really, who, given the chance, wouldn’t choose the identity of savior over victim, actor over dissatisfied customer, the champion who redistributes oxygen to Mars instead of the duped nobody?

Yet a pose too meticulously struck can become the role of a lifetime. In Verhoeven’s Dutch homecoming, Black Book (2006), masquerades multiply and muddle personhood. Across its runtime, the protagonist, a Jewish woman weathering wartime Netherlands, either is or passes herself off as a cabaret singer, a Christian convert, a typhus-infected corpse, a peroxided typist screwing her gestapo boss, a collaborator, an avenging angel, and a kibbutz matriarch. Endurance justifies her pretense: “While there’s life, there’s hope,” she says, applying blood-red lipstick at Hitler’s birthday party, where she shares a microphone with the Obersturmführer who killed her family. Fighting alongside her, meanwhile, is a Resistance gunman who actually funnels loot from slain Jews to a German officer, but who, unexposed, the crowd cheers come peacetime. One scene, fraught in retrospect, has the traitor don stolen Nazi attire to spring his imprisoned compatriots, a disguise of a disguise of a disguise. Dissimulation dissolves at last into truth.

Situations shift, and everyone behaves their best to impress the victors. “Winner takes all,” declare two different women, both mid-coitus, in different Verhoeven films. Invariably, his characters nimbly imitate whoever survives—or conquers. In Showgirls, a wannabe dancer waiting in the wings avidly mirrors the onstage moves of a nudie-revue idol who she will someday supersede. Eager to entice her future fiancé, a princess eavesdrops on her maid trysting with a soldier in Flesh+Blood (1985). Soon, she reappropriates this sideways education when a band of mercenaries kidnaps her and threatens rape. Dutifully replicating the moans she’d overheard, she rebuffs further violation by seducing their leader and securing his fond protection. The most studious mimic, however, is Starship Troopers’ Johnny Rico, scolded during class for regurgitating the textbook’s “exact words.” In due course an ascendant infantryman who has learned nothing, Rico swallows and spits out the grim battle cries of his superior, also his former schoolteacher, whose command in the intergalactic conflict he inherits by default: “Come on, you apes! Do you want to live forever?” Rehearsing their scripts again and again, people hazard disappearing within their diligent facades. Performances can implode, splintering selfhood, inflecting illusion into full-scale delusion.

Mid-performance finds the eponymous nun of Benedetta first experiencing ecstasy. Portraying the Madonna, Benedetta (Virginie Efira, who was the prim, complicit Catholic wife of a sexual sadist in 2016’s Elle) is conveyed heavenward on a pulleyed bier. Jesus is a woman with a beard. Verhoeven cuts behind the curtain, stressing the conspicuous stagecraft. Impatient for her divine spouse’s embrace or else dazzled in the limelight, Benedetta beholds him among a far-off flock and hastens ahead, her twitchy feet breaking character in front of the seventeenth-century convent’s assembled audience. “I saw Jesus,” she states frankly. The Christ of this and her ensuing visions is hunky, gallant, and materializes as if on cue to behead CGI snakes, sneak a kiss, or strike down would-be ravishers astride a white horse—in short, he’s a marquee hero, a pseudo-Schwarzenegger. Yes, it’s all riotously funny, but it’s deadly serious, too. The sincere, baroque tenor of her fancies reminds me of how Susan Sontag, in her oft-cited essay on “camp,” describes that capacious, tenuous, queer-adjacent style as “a tender feeling” that “identifies with what it is enjoying.” Benedetta enjoys her tender mysticism with gusto. Hitherto we have no reason to doubt her. Maybe she really is a star.

Jesus, Etc.

Enter from off-screen Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), pursued by straying sheep and her lecherous father, from whom she seeks sanctuary inside the convent. Noviceship has a price, however, chides Mother Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), and the men haggle over what crude number the shepherdess merits. Bartolomea is not Church-bred but filthy, bruised, and accustomed to ill-use, as feral and guiltless as an animal. Her principal request is for somewhere to defecate, a ceremony that she discharges beside Benedetta, laughing at a fart which ruptures the claustral silence. Less a character than a phantom of carnality, à la Sister Ruth from Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), Bartolomea’s gaze simmers and sparks. She’s also an abused woman whose sole lexicon of loyalty is sex, and, when Benedetta proves solicitous, she fingers her during choir or gawps at her breasts through their shared cell, bordered only by a gauzy curtain.

The Church was (is) fixated on the body, especially the feminine one, as a site of corruptive pleasure and redemptive suffering.

But Benedetta resists reciprocation; she even punishes Bartolomea by demanding she thrust the hand that penetrated her into boiling water. Benedetta’s subsequent visions sublimate this longing into theological incident: Jesus bestows on her a bigger, chest-swelling heart, which Benedetta blissfully begs Bartolomea to caress. In another, a crucified Christ commands Benedetta to remove the loincloth separating them—“Where I am, there can be no shame”—beneath which he’s dickless, as if his anatomy is unimaginable to the virgin mind or else inferred from her own sapphic predilections. From this dead-of-night dream, Benedetta ostensibly receives the stigmata, and because it’s good press, the Church elects her to be abbess, thus granting her a private chamber where she and Bartolomea can, for a time, commune undetected. Eventually, the jilted ex-abbess Felicita snoops on their candlelit romps and alerts the papal nuncio, who instigates an investigation and trial, not for visions that could be heresy but for a visionary desire.

The arc of Benedetta is loosely limned from Immodest Acts, Judith C. Brown’s 1986 academic curio biographing the actual Benedetta Carlini—a nun tried twice, stripped of status, and imprisoned for life—and her inamorata-then-Judas, Bartolomea. The initial twenty pages of the slim book are a frothing catalogue of premodern theologians’ baffled obsession, nearing a fetish, with which sorts of illicit sex warranted precisely which punishments and, in particular, whether women could commit sodomy, a putative male crime and a capital offense. (Answer: only insofar as they resembled men.) The sheer volume of this writing testifies to the dreaded indeterminacy of these transgressions. The Church was (is) fixated on the body, especially the feminine one, as a site of corruptive pleasure and redemptive suffering. Nuns underwent routine self-mortification with the scourge and welcomed ailments as dignifying reinscriptions of Christ’s torment. Just outside Pescia, Tuscany, where Benedetta Carlini’s convent resided, the bubonic plague was havocking and rupturing the flesh, making all manner of contact dangerous.

When Verhoeven’s Benedetta is first committed to the convent, she must quit all personal possessions, including a wooden statuette of the Virgin Mary, gifted by her mother, and corral herself in coarse cloth intended to stave off sensual comfort: “Your worst enemy is your body,” an older nun explains. By way of example, she recounts how her severed finger had years ago been replaced with a carved wooden copy. She wishes the rest of her, like the ship of Theseus, could be transfigured piece by piece into wood, endless substitutions creating something new, purer. Later, however, her wish is strangely articulated by Bartolomea, who whittles the bottom half of the Virgin Mary that Benedetta once treasured into a dildo that will allow her to penetrate deeper. The spiritual and carnal sides of the dildo seem to represent the two halves—pleasure and belief—of Benedetta’s being. If its existence seems a far-fetched deviation from the real Carlini, Brown’s book testifies to its plausibility with reports of nuns burned at the stake for “using material instruments.” Bartolomea’s almost pagan sensuality, her enthusiastic consent, are welcome in this kind of environment.

To call Benedetta “nunsploitation” is a feint, disregarding the posterior of that portmanteau. Kinky fare like Norifumi Suzuki’s The Transgressor (1974) or Jesús Franco’s Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977) draw on the convent’s repressed atmosphere to stage elaborate erotic set pieces. Benedetta, despite or perhaps because of its enthusiastic eros, hews more toward Church-sanctioned stories about the tribulations of female mystics—and the ecclesiastical authorities’ efforts to yoke something so nebulous as faith to doctrinal logic. Consider the countless cinematic renditions of Joan of Arc, whose most heinous crime, other than leading effectively, was cross-dressing; or even Henry King’s saccharine The Song of Bernadette (1943), in which an adolescent girl glimpses the Madonna in a grotto where villagers dump their garbage. “She’s showing off,” her cynical father grouses, in words that suit Benedetta. “Makes up a story to feel important.” Bernadette, unlike Benedetta, in time was canonized, but at the cost of her freedom: the Church’s tenacious suspicion pressures her into guarding her purity, so she swears her solemn vows, forsaking secular love and confining herself in a cloister away from her pilgrims and their ungovernable admiration.

Benedetta’s theological lineage traces most closely to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), another film about trying to reconcile religion with sexuality. The protagonist, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), flouts clerical celibacy with frivolous, bourgeois women, impregnating and abandoning one. But he falls in love with a woman who, before they have sex, asks for his justification for why it wouldn’t be a sin. He responds by officiating their own marriage. Ironically, Grandier’s desire to be a good man for her brings him closer to God, even as it becomes part of what condemns him to be burned at the stake after he is caught up in a power struggle between Catholics and Protestants, local autonomy and kingly tyranny. In Russell’s film, the Church corrupts, but Benedetta at least may believe her unorthodox actions are endorsed by God.

Benedetta’s physical relationship with Bartolomea could be simply one element of her potential hypocrisy, a conduit that gives her adequate reason to defy church strictures. Or it could be a radical embrace of physical pleasure, a celebration of the body and love for the individual as a means to reach Christ. Either way, it literalizes the arguments of the film—surfaces versus soul, body versus spirit—and Benedetta’s scenes with Bartolomea are joyous and consensual: “Through it, I show my love to the universe,” she tells the scornful nuncio. In fact, the only nonconsensual insertion in Benedetta is perpetrated by the Church, during a torture sequence that mirrors the supposed sacrilege of the dildo and an almost identical, climactic scene in The Devils. Both make us query which is worse: blasphemous pleasure or sanctioned rape.

A Voice in the Wilderness

Benedetta’s sexual ambiguity is one facet of her Janus-faced character, which Verhoeven slowly burdens with doubts that leave us in a state of suspension. In his films, signs are singular, but their interpretations are illimitable, even as the evidence for any pet theory is always visible. In Flesh+Blood, a cardinal despairs over a mercenary leader’s imprecation and prays for assurance from God that he is right to follow him. Before long, in the flare of battle, the mercenary is auspiciously enhaloed by an enflamed wagon wheel. The believers of Benedetta are forever grasping for guidance in a world without waymarks, and they often believe whatever exegesis confirms their biases: a comet blazing red above the convent could be the cosmic condemnation of God or the tongue-in-cheek manifestation of Benedetta’s blazing orgasm. Meanwhile, Benedetta herself insists that the broken glass found each time in her stigmata wounds isn’t a smoking gun but mere evidence that God channels worldly tools toward divine ends.

Benedetta’s theological lineage traces most closely to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), another film about trying to reconcile religion with sexuality.

Some of the signature features of religion—ritualized spectacle, interpretive fervor, unselfconscious excess, an ardent disregard for rationality—are the signature features of Verhoeven’s films. (His movie project about the historical Christ has been long-deferred. For research, Verhoeven joined the Jesus Seminar, a defunct consortium of biblical scholars and laity and in 2008 produced the speculative nonfiction Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait.) Christianity, like any system of sense-making, seeks to splice our fragmental reality into one continuous reel of affective experience, a totalizing image. In a 2011 interview with The Believer magazine, Verhoeven extolled Jesus as an “innovator of ethics” who amassed “things that happened on Earth” and “put those in a narrative,” specifically the parables. For Verhoeven, the parables raise a formal quandary: How does a director depict a storyteller so persuasive, so sweeping in his scope, that his tales have become gospel, a word that magnifies “truth”?

Through Benedetta, Verhoeven has accomplished a slanted portrait of that Jesus, of a person who is, as Brown writes, “deceiver and deceived in her own self-created drama.” Some would call this Method acting, others faith: both are ecstatic embodiments demanding our suspension of disbelief. What fascinates Verhoeven is how that faith ripples outward and permeates whole communities, transfiguring intangible ideas into matter and history. That is, after all, the artist’s way: idea becomes object. Whether con artist or artful mystic, Benedetta seems nothing so much as an avatar of Verhoeven himself, who time and again, despite derision or exile, has returned to preside in his house of worship, where the congregants glimpse pictures, like stained glass, tricked from flickering light. “The great man,” Diderot wrote, “is no longer the one who creates truth; he is the one who knows how best to reconcile falsehood with truth.” The great artist is the one who tells such a good story, we want to believe.