davidehrlich’s review published on Letterboxd:
You probably won’t be shocked to hear that Paul Verhoeven’s erotic drama about the relationship between two horny nuns in a 17th century Italian convent — a sacrilegious affair that became one of modern Western civilization’s earliest documented instances of lesbianism after a parish scrivener wrote about it in his diary with curiously exacting detail — isn’t quite the restrained sapphic romance that period films like “Carol,” “Ammonite,” and “The World to Come” have popularized in recent years. On the contrary, “Benedetta” is a movie in which the abbess of a convent gets fucked by a wooden statue of Jesus that someone has whittled into a dildo for her.
The director of “Robocop,” “Showgirls,” and “Starship Troopers” has never had much use for subtlety or unspoken yearning, and his unholy adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s history book “Immodest Acts” feels closer in spirit to “The Devils” than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” even before the film supplements its source material with a dick-less Christ, demonic omens, and a COVID-ready subplot about the efficacy of lockdown measures against the Plague.
And yet, despite a handful of headline-worthy moments and a generally blasphemous — or perhaps just humanistic? — attitude toward the dogmas of the Catholic Church, “Benedetta” can’t help but feel like one of Verhoeven’s tamer efforts. You get the sense that’s by design to a certain extent: While certainly not making any concessions to the puritan crowd, Verhoeven is only interested in provocation so far as it might slap people into appreciating how “God’s will” tends to reflect the self-interests of those who see fit to enforce it (anyone who would be outraged by the content of this movie will already be outraged by the mere idea of it). As an agnostic who’s spoken about the sudden attacks of faith he experienced as a younger man, Verhoeven is also palpably conflicted about the extent to which someone can negotiate their view of Christ before they begin to worship something else. A fascist society’s fetish for pain is a natural thing to subvert, but a religious person’s desire for pleasure is only brought to crisis by a softer touch.
His uncertainty might have been an asset for “Benedetta” if the movie were more attuned to that of its namesake. Verhoeven’s focus on Benedetta Carlini’s vagina is the closest the film ever gets to giving her character a believable sense a sense of interiority. Embodied by a severe and increasingly opaque Virginie Effira, Benedetta is a devout believer in Jesus’ love who isn’t always sure how best to return it. A certain grandiosity has accompanied her faith ever since she was accepted to the convent as a child bride for Christ (complete with a massive dowry from her father), and she hears her dead husband’s voice in her head with a frequency and fervor associated with Joan of Arc.