Benedetta starts as a wild, campy, and sardonic ride from Verhoeven about religious hypocrisy and unenlightenment with dedicated, slightly pantomime performances by Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia. Still, unfortunately, it ends with its irony feeling somewhat dry by the end.
When it comes to satire in cinema, the master of the house is Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Explicit violence or sexual content are some of his trademarks that are in most of his films. My favorite film of his is Basic Instinct (1992). The ripe dialogue intertwined with the overly-acted, to the proper extent, performances by Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone make it one hell of a joy ride. The story is so wild and erotic that its 2006 sequel, even though Verhoeven himself doesn’t direct it, is laugh-out-loud funny, and the people involved went all-in with the gag.
It can be erotic thrillers (The 4th Man, 1983), tense dramas (Elle, 2016), or cynical sci-fi romps (RoboCop, 1987), the man can switch his style and manage to go on top while still delivering some of his usual campy and over-the-top mechanics. Of course, he has his set of failures, or critically known as disasters, like Starship Troopers (1997) and Showgirls (1995), but audiences have picked up these pictures and shined a new light on them. His filmography is unlike any of the directors still working today, thanks to how he takes a genre and makes it his own. Now he is extending his variety of works by doing a ridiculous, on purpose, nunsploitation film named Benedetta.
Set in the late 17th century where the black plague is ravaging the entire land. The parents of the wealthy Carlini family send their daughter, Benedetta (Virginie Efira), to stay at a convent in Pescia, Tuscany, as a novice because they think God himself has gifted her. Ever since a young age, she has been performing “miracles.” One day, after a harrowing encounter with her father, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) asks Benedetta to save her from her current life; so, the Carlinis decide to pay for her stay at the convent. They build a strong bond, and the more potent it gets, the more miracles Benedetta seems to make. Making a nunsploitation flick without it looking like an asinine or disrespectful farce is a challenging task to do, but if one person can handle such a thing, it’s Verhoeven.
When thinking about the subgenre, the first films that come to mind are Ken Russel’s The Devils (1971), Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (1977), and Berruti’s Killer Nun (1979); all of them coming from the 1970s-80s grindhouse cinema movement. Albeit, Verhoeven doesn’t want to dwell in the horror genre. Instead, he wants to use his usual ironic form with a melodramatic approach to deliver something unique or at least a film that takes us back to the time of exploitationers. Benedetta includes many moments of sardonic brilliance that take you off-guard and make you howl with laughter due to how audacious the situations are being played out. By the fifteen-minute mark, you have chuckled a couple of times, and twenty minutes later, you are seeing some of the best-crafted satire this year.
It’s controversial, as most exploitation flicks are, and undaunted. Fart jokes, stigmata, blasphemy, carnal pleasures, and a sword-wielding Jesus; there’s everything you would imagine from a movie like this. By satirizing religion with all the elements mentioned above, Verhoeven wants the audience to react in whatever way possible; because, in a way, that’s its primary purpose. He wants to keep you in doubt of what would come next while provoking, little by little, exaggeration through exaggeration. All of this works thanks to the dedicated cast that understands the assignment and goes along with the blagues. First, of course, seeing Charlotte Rampling on-screen is great. She already knows how to handle a role in provocative films, thanks to The Night Porter. However, the ones that elevate the picture are the two leads, Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia. The over-the-top pantomime-esque acting may be irksome for a couple of segments, yet it somehow works for most of the runtime since the two have great chemistry with each other.
The film’s first half renders satire that Verhoeven knows how to do well, but it is in its second where things start to take a turn for the worse, especially in its third act. Its jokes regarding blasphemy can run for a limited time until a new gag arrives to replace it. Because its script is not that well-structured or polished, it doesn’t know how it wants to end, although it delivers multiple laughs throughout its runtime. It, unfortunately, ends on a low note with its jokes running dry. There are enough elements that you can merge all in a religious lampoon before it becomes a worrisome problem, and Benedetta’s pacing and lengthy runtime doesn’t help it. It is still facetious, don’t get me wrong, but there is a feeling that it isn’t going anywhere after having quite a great start.
Most of the nunsploitation classics find their footing in many ways: absurdness, violence, sarcastic ideas, and the daring attempt by the one at the helm. Nevertheless, one crucial aspect is left to work perfectly without feeling derivative: a short runtime. Benedetta wants to tackle too much and extends itself to cover it, yet by doing so, it hurts its entertainment factor and arrangement. It also causes its gags to lose their shock factor and effect. On a positive note, it works better than Showgirls as a satire, albeit it isn’t as memorable. At the age of 83, Verhoeven is still making pictures worthy of the price of admission and the conversation afterward, even though it doesn’t work in its entirety by the end.