The films of Paul Verhoeven are almost entirely synonymous with controversy — the hyperviolence of RoboCop, the erotic intrigue of Basic Instinct, the entire existence of Showgirls. Since he returned to filmmaking with 2016’s Elle, Verhoeven has continued to embrace deliberately complicated themes, and the subject matter of Benedetta, his latest, is particularly thorny. Emphasis on thorn, because Benedetta — based loosely on a true story and set during the 17th century, while the second plague pandemic and the Roman Catholic faith were at their most unsparing — is all about the violence that can often be bound up in faith, embodied in the image of the crucifixion.

At an early age, the unusually gifted Benedetta is given by her wealthy parents to a convent. But unlike places of worship so often depicted in film, the nunnery is hardly a refuge, but rather a place of commerce. As nuns are considered “brides of Christ,” they are quite literally expected to pay a dowry, and as the abbess (Charlotte Rampling) makes clear, God has room for only the highest bidders. Eighteen years pass as the now-adult Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has devoted her life to worship and service. When Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives at the doors of the convent, looking for a way out from a deeply abusive household, she finds them firmly shut — until Benedetta insists on paying her way. The two are clearly beguiled by one another, the sexual tension growing like only a sin kept in sworn secrecy can.

During a passion play, Benedetta sees the image of Christ, a strapping young man guiding over a flock of sheep, beckoning her to join him and give herself fully to him. Soon, she is beset by even more visions, but they grow progressively twisted, what some might call blasphemous, as her fantasies of Christ grow not just more sexual but more violent. In one manifestation, she is attacked by a gang of marauders, only for Jesus to appear on a horse, dispatching her attackers with a sword in an almost Monty Python-level display of cartoon blood and loss of limb. The absurdity of the vision quickly falls away as Benedetta’s savior reveals himself not to be Christ, but a false idol, who assaults Benedetta and tortures her.

After several nights of agony and inexplicable illness, Benedetta develops the signs of the stigmata: the wounds of the crucifixion, viewed as a miracle and sign of instant sainthood by the people of the time. While some fully believe the miracle and are desperate to anoint Benedetta the new abbess — in part because having a saint in your town is good for business — others have doubts, and the convent and town around it quickly tear themselves asunder. The intimacy Benedetta and Bartolomea share soon blackens like a festering wound, as Benedetta grows convinced of her holy powers and begins to coerce Bartolomea. When their secret is revealed and persecution begins, they are driven apart not just by the tortures of the inquisition, but by Benedetta’s genuine love of God — for her, there is no separating carnal sexuality from worship. Bartolomea wants to lose herself in Benedetta, while Benedetta is devoted to martyrdom, and wants to lose herself in her belief.

While some might come to Benedetta expecting a forbidden queer romance along the lines of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the truth of the film is much gnarlier. Verhoeven is considerably more interested in the rotting reality of 17th-century life and Christian faith at the time, in mixing the sacred and the profane, than he is in exploring human tenderness or connection. This is a world where love is little, and pus and bile and shit are plenty. For Verhoeven, who is actually a published author on the life and times of the historical Jesus Christ, the symbols of faith are not just the cross or the steeple, but self-flagellation of plague-inflicted monks and sickening torture devices.

Verhoeven is interested in historical fidelity more than most filmmakers, but his surreal and often demented visions, riddled with plague and pestilence, feel more like the Book of Revelation than a period piece. In fact, you might say that Benedetta is a film made through Old Testament eyes: All flesh is fallen, all the world is filth, and the only way out is fiery suffering.

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