CANNES, France — Forgive them, Father, for they have sinned. Repeatedly! Creatively! And wait until you hear what they did with that Virgin Mary statuette.
The bad girls I’m referring to are Benedetta and Bartolomea, two 17th-century lesbian nuns at the center of the new drama “Benedetta,” which debuted Friday at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a delicious, sacrilegious provocation from Paul Verhoeven, the director of “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls” and “Elle,” and at age 82, Verhoeven proves himself to be as frisky as ever.
Based on the Judith C. Brown nonfiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” the film follows Benedetta (Virginie Efira), a young nun so convinced that she is the bride of Christ that she even dreams about a hunky, bare-chested Jesus flirting with her. And why wouldn’t he? Benedetta is a blond bombshell who looks less like a pious 17th-century nun and more like a Charlie’s Angel in disguise, and when the pretty peasant Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives at the convent, she starts making eyes at Benedetta, too.
Nun-on-nun action ensues far faster than you might expect, given that this convent is lorded over by a strict mother superior (Charlotte Rampling) and Benedetta is prone to visions that end with the manifestation of stigmata. But as her religious ecstasy turns ever more orgasmic, Benedetta eventually finds a steamier, more earthbound way of chasing that high. “Jesus gave me a new heart,” she tells Bartolomea, exposing one breast. “Feel it.” (Look, they did foreplay very differently in the 17th century.)
Once their sexual relationship heats up, these nuns find their habits easy to take off but hard to break. Eventually, a statuette of the Virgin Mary is whittled into a sex toy and after Benedetta and Bartolomea, er, apply themselves to it, the audience at the Cannes press screening applauded the film’s blasphemous nerve. Verhoeven has always had a gift for making the ridiculous feel divine, and now the reverse holds true, too.
Still, at the news conference for “Benedetta,” Verhoeven insisted the scene wasn’t blasphemous at all.
“I don’t really understand how you can blaspheme about something that happened, even in 1625,” he said, offering up excerpts from Brown’s book. “You cannot change history, you cannot change things the happened, and I based it on things that happened.”
Perhaps, but Verhoeven’s version still gives the truth a bit of a makeover, since Benedetta and Bartolomea always seem to be sporting eye makeup, foundation and lipstick. Though their faces are never nude, their bodies frequently are, and would it surprise you to learn that when these lithe nuns strip down, they’re as toned and well-manicured as a Playboy centerfold? In the convent, God may be watching, but Verhoeven’s gaze trumps all.
If any viewers ding “Benedetta” for serving up religious commentary with a side of cheesecake, Verhoeven remained unbothered. “In general, when people have sex, they take their clothes off,” Verhoeven said matter-of-factly. “I’m stunned, basically, how we don’t want to look at the reality of life.”
His actresses expressed no qualms about their sex scene. “Everything was very joyful when we stripped off our clothes,” Efira said, while Patakia told the news media that when Verhoeven is directing, “You forget you’re naked.”
Still, they never lost sight of just how much they’d be required to push the envelope.
“I remember reading the script to myself and thinking, ‘There is not a single normal scene,’” Patakia said. “There is always something destabilizing.” She added, “So, I immediately said yes.”
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