Fair to say the pandemic hasn't changed Paul Verhoeven in any way. The flies-open Dutchman's latest, Benedetta, has so far been positioned in the press as an item of premium-grade trolling, taking aim at dual targets: audience expectations around the costume drama (it isn't the clothes Verhoeven wants us to goggle at) and the Catholic church (presented as a proto-capitalist racket designed to leech money from the same women it ensnares and turns against themselves). It starts comparatively mildly for a film from the director of Total Recall and Basic Instinct, with a one-eyed pillager getting bird poop in his eye, a fleeting glimpse of a Pétomane-like stage act featuring a man setting light to his own farts, and some passing anti-Semitism from cynical Abbess Charlotte Rampling. The main event, as you'll surely have gleaned from the lipsmacking pre-publicity, is some based-on-true-events girl-on-girl (more precisely, nun-on-nun) action, drawing on historian Judith C. Brown's 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy; the warm-up for this turns out to be some girl-by-girl, nun-by-nun shitting on a dual hers-and-hers commode. (You can only imagine the smile on Verhoeven's face when he first saw production designer Katia Wyszkop's handiwork.) We caper towards the kind of visions and fantasies, usually involving a hunky, blue-eyed Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié), which had protestors gathering in their multitudes for 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ and saw 1989's nunsploitationer Visions of Ecstasy banned outright by the British censor. If restraint (in the non-S&M sense) is what you're after, you're in entirely the wrong screen; heed the advice of the septuagenarian usher at the public screening I attended last night, who jovially cautioned her patrons that tonight's presentation was "quite pornographic", with a knowing chuckle. How far we've all come.
We might quibble with the usher's terminology - though 18-rated, everything on screen is carefully, attentively simulated - but Benedetta does at least adhere to porno rules. Once behind convent walls, Verhoeven spends a good while teasing hardened sensation seekers with cursory boobs and bums, typically obscured by shadows and curtains, before finally going all-in with the assistance of a crucifix repurposed as a dildo, a readymade talking point guaranteed to rival Basic Instinct's no-knickers interrogation scene. It's an hour before our virtuous heroine (Virginie Efira) enjoys her first orgasm, at which point it feels like a matter of life and death; only in the final moments are we presented with unabashed full-frontal nudity in the open air, and a liberation (albeit a temporary one). The net result is that Benedetta allows us to be seduced by the possibilities of a story before its clammy hands venture decisively below the belt. What do we notice? Firstly, that it represents Verhoeven's most obviously feminist undertaking in a long while: a tale of women trapped within a system that depends for its continued survival on their coming to hate themselves, one another and their own bodies. "Your body is your worst enemy," Benedetta is told upon entering the convent, understood here as a place where women are sent so as to let their flesh wither, the better to keep temptation at bay and preserve their spirit for the Son of God. (Verhoeven, inevitably, heightens this process to an extreme, by having one older Sister (Guilaine Londez) consumed by untouched, untreated breast cancer; she dies with the word "mensonges" (lies) on her lips.) The arrival of wild child Bartolomea (feral newcomer Daphné Patakia) offers Benedetta someone closer to her own age to bond with, but their sisterly solidarity - the new outspokenness it prompts, and the radical reinterpretation of Christ's teachings it represents - poses a threat to the sexless status quo. Given the slightly sniggering tone of the reviews, you may find yourself surprised - as I was - by how seriously Verhoeven takes the girls' affair, both as an engine for generating thrills and a challenge to the established social order.
Still, Benedetta isn't quite the return to full form many were hoping from this director. Unlike 1985's free-roaming Flesh + Blood, it's limited - possibly by the pandemic - to a single location that assumes an air of self-reflexivity as the Black Death blows in. Narratively, it feels episodic, the selected, salacious highlights of one cloistered life flattening one another out: even Benedetta's reported possession by Christ is Just Another Thing, although it is quite a thing. The film is broadly entertaining, never boring, committed to its point-of-view and to filling its widescreen frames with the eyepopping and jawdropping; it does plenty to stir the blood. Yet - and this has long been a Verhoeven limitation - it never cuts deep enough to touch the soul. Just on an editorial level, it can't fully connect the hypocrisies and horrors of Benedetta's age to those of our own: it's all still walled off, another Verhoeven movie that seems to exist within heavily ironic quotation marks. Its strongest suit is Efira, one of the most daring actresses in world cinema, though I'm not sure I ever bought her as a potential bride of Christ. She was convincing as a nervy newlywed in 2018's An Impossible Love, but Verhoeven clocks the hot-to-trot woman in her from the off. (When Benedetta and Bartolomea fuck, they fuck like the characters in a Nineties movie - not necessarily an issue for those of us who like Nineties movies, but a further trashing of real period authenticity.) Yet as befits a movie bound for an appointment with the stake, you look upon Efira as you look upon Jean Seberg in Saint Joan: as a movie star, someone worth looking at, with a body that - doubtless to the Catholic Legion of Decency's alarm and dismay - simply never quits. (This camera works overtime recording that fact.) Is it sleazy? Or is it sex-positive? Verhoeven has spent his entire career collecting such perverse, double-edged responses. I'll say this for Benedetta: you wouldn't be able to guess from watching it that its maker had been away from the cinema for some while, nor that the movies had comprehensively lost their libido in that time. Verhoeven is still the same old horny fucker making horny films in a moment when everybody else is fiddling round with plastic action figures. In a sense Benedetta herself would understand more than most, this could be considered God's work.
Benedetta is now showing in selected cinemas.