Movie Review: Verhoeven’s moving — and of course titillating — “Benedetta”

Gorgeous lesbians stripping down and working up a sweat, enterprisingly making their own sex toys because Amazon didn’t exist then, threats and scheming and intrigues.

Let’s just say whoever told that cinematic sinner Paul Verhoeven to “Get thee to a nunnery,” quoting Shakespeare, did us all a favor. Because he did.

“Benedetta” is a gripping, graphic and shockingly moving film biography of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century Italian nun who claimed to have visions, spoke in what sounded like an otherworldly voice during trances, displayed stigmata and even took over the Theatine convent where she lived, driving the Catholic Church a bit mad with her hijinks but beloved by the good people of Pescia.

Because this woman said she was a literal “bride of Christ,” and that was good enough for them. Carrying on a torrid affair with a fellow nun? Well, nobody’s perfect, not even somebody some 17th century Italians were sure was a living saint.

What an odd subject for the director of “Showgirls,” “Black Book” and “Basic Instinct” to take on. But the whole enterprise is odd.

It has a Belgian actress actress (Virginie Efira) in the title role, another Belgian (Daphne Patakia) as Bartolomea, her “sister” and lover, and the Great Brit Charlotte Rampling as the Abbess at their convent.

It’s an Italian story, acted in French and directed by a Dutch blasphemer.

Verhoeven veers between low comedy camp and religious ecstasy in this often entertaining period piece about someone who really lived and apparently really believed, although there were plenty of “sisters” who were sure she was just faking it, even back then.

The movie’s first “miracle” comes when she’s 12, her wealthy family is on the way to the convent and robbers steal her mother’s jewels. Little Miss Holier Than Thou — literally — isn’t having it.

“The Blessed Virgin will PUNISH you,” Benedetta (Elena Plonka) threatens. And sure enough, the leaves in the tree above them bustle, and a bird poops right in the eye of the offending robber. The jewels are returned. Even brigands know an Act of God when they see it.

Taking residence with the Theatines, the child prays to a statue of the Blessed Virgin, which falls on her, pressing a bare wooden breast in her face.

Another miracle? It supposedly really happened, but Verhoeven has fun with it.

Years later, Benedetta’s eccentricities come to the fore when she intervenes and gets an abused local girl, Bartolomea, admitted to their order. In an instant, the pious and pretty nun is tested and tempted by the uninhibited, unfiltered and uncouth farmgirl.

“I’m beautiful,” the newcomer wants to know? “We had no mirrors.”

Come “see your reflection in my eyes,” Benedetta tells her. “Closer. CLOSER.”

For a movie that plays reasonably straight and fair with this true story, Verhoeven can’t resist having a laugh, here and there.

But in between the japes and some “Showgirls in a 17th century convent” sex scenes, the picture is as serious as “Saint Joan.” Benedetta’s visions can be beatific — summoned by Jesus (hunky Jonathan Couzini) as a flock of sheep parts to invite her in where he gives her the Good Word.

And then there’s the time he’s nailed to the cross and he asks his “bridge” to come close and get, well, intimate.

Yes, there have been protests.

Efira, probably best-known abroad for the French-speaking version of the middle-aged men’s synchronized swimming comedy “Sink or Swim,” ably gets across the fanaticism, the clear-eyed true believer in Benedetta. At times, she might be playing cagey over her “miracles,” at others an innocent, lured into sex with this wild-thing that’s been moved into her cell at the convent.

Both Efira and Patakia seriously sell the heat of attraction, with Efira playing passive, at first, and oh so “thirsty” later.

Rampling’s Abbess, Sister Felicita, is the most nuanced character in this — patient and compassionate, but seriously skeptical about all this supernaturalism ruling her world.

“Miracles sprout like mushrooms,” she coos, in French with English subtitles. Best not be too hasty striking those silver “Saint Benedetta” medals, sisters.

The well-traveled Lambert Wilson (“DeGaulle,” the early “Matrix” movies) makes a fine villain of the piece, the papal nuncio sent to investigate this possibly heretical charismatic.

Whatever playful touches Verhoeven indulges in, the entertainment value in “Benedetta” is seeing his mixed feelings about her unfold over the course of the film. He’s lightly mocking, then seriously considering her “condition,” going for crowd-pleasing lesbian love scenes and pondering the dangers of “coming out” in that age, and the power and influence Benedetta was able to accumulate between what seems to have become an open secret.

And there’s something unutterably moving about someone facing death at the stake.

Sitting on the fence about the character makes this a more measured movie than a younger Verhoeven might have given us, less of a lampoon. As that’s what he does best — well, that and sex scenes — his ambivalence holds “Benedetta” back. He hasn’t lost his touch, although in sports terms, we can see he’s lost something off his fastball.

But it’s still a fascinating story, told with enough period detail, humor, compassion and nudity to hold our attention for two hours. Paul Verhoeven never bores.

Rating: unrated, graphic violence, explicit sex, nudity

Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia and Lambert Wilson.

Credits: Directed by Paul Verhoeven, scripted by Davie Birke and Paul Verhoeven, based on a book by Judith C. Brown. IFC release.

Running time: 2:11

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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