Higher Power: Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta and the Legacy of Nunsploitation

By Christoph Huber

The pear of anguish is a medieval torture instrument, whose spoon-like metal segments spread at the turn of a screw in its centre. Also known as the “choke pear” because it was often applied to the victim’s mouth, it could be inserted into any orifice. Strapped to the torture rack, young nun Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) gets a presentation of the pear by the papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson, luxuriating in an air of well-meaning condescension): “Joan of Arc was a brave warrior, as even her enemies had to admit. Nevertheless, she confessed her sins when shown the instruments of torture. Don’t pretend to be braver than Joan of Arc.” The torturer takes over, one-upping the nuncio’s hypocritical solemnity by dutifully declaring (before he inserts the pear offscreen into the screaming nun’s vagina) “We don’t know each other yet, you and me, but we’re in the same boat. The journey can be long. It can be short. Let’s pray that God will illuminate our path.”

This brief highlight—one of many—in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta is emblematic of the insolent tendencies that have made the Dutch director one of the most distinctive artistic voices working in commercial cinema for the last 50 years. The set-up is familiar from countless movies, and so is the indictment of a systemic double standard that advocates inhuman torture in the name of morality. Usually, filmmakers side with the victim, decry the sadism of the perpetrators, and score easy points by inviting an outrage that is well-justified, but hardly illuminating; or, they go the whole exploitative distance in the other direction and subscribe to what, in an only slightly different context, has come to be called torture porn. But Verhoeven has the cheek to let his torturer spout this insultingly egalitarian statement, making the scene much more outrageous and complex in characteristic ways.

Verhoeven’s great theme is how people create forms of domination to assert power over other people, and the torturer’s sentence is a supremely Verhoevian example of the twisted logic that must be applied so that one can live comfortably within this system, even calling it civilization: per the classic quote from Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu (1939), everyone has his reasons. But while this maxim is usually interpreted within a sympathetic, “humanist” framework, the Verhoeven touch conjures a more ambivalent view of human nature. Stressing the violent and often appalling ways of humanity’s opportunistic and Darwinian leanings, Verhoeven at the same time celebrates its ingenuity in its constant struggle for survival, without necessarily coming down on either side. He’s the rare filmmaker who has repeatedly been able to have his cake and it eat too, a triumph epitomized most memorably in his once-contested Disney blockbuster Starship Troopers (1997), which doubles as an anthology of the propagandistic image arsenal that the seventh art built up during the 20th century—especially its fascist and totalitarian tendencies—and a hilarious pop-art send-up of same. (That such satire was not always noticed upon release only reinforced the point.)

After his breakthrough second feature Turkish Delight (1973) set him on a succès de scandale path, Verhoeven moved from Holland to Hollywood in the ’80s and back again in the 2000s, as both the European funding system and the American industry proved increasingly averse to the inherently subversive nature of his filmmaking. Classified as a provocateur, the enfant terrible over time became a cause célèbre, and by now even the mainstream has accepted him as a genuine (if still automatically “controversial”) artiste. This seems only deserved for a director whose ambivalent worldview has found a most joyful expression in the inherently manipulative art of narrative cinema, his skillful orchestrations and pointed exaggerations cheerfully demonstrating, if not deconstructing, its manipulative power.

Telling the story of 17th-century nun Benedetta Carlini, venerated as a mystic for her spiritual visions and stigmata, then investigated and judged for her sexual relations with another nun, Benedetta continues the elder-statesman mode that has been characteristic of Verhoeven’s late output. You couldn’t accuse him of pulling punches, but after the prolonged hiatus following Black Book (2006), Verhoeven may have found a more comfortable niche through French funding, able to produce high-profile films that cater to a festival and art-house circuit in which the label “controversial” no longer stems from genuine public reaction, but rather has become an ingrained part of the marketing campaign. Despite some strain in certain quarters to conjure an aura of scandal for its belated Cannes premiere (shot in 2018, it was postponed after the director’s hip surgery delayed post-production, then again because of the pandemic), Benedetta instead simply showcases fine filmmaking from a world-class director still at the height of his powers at age 83, while also marking a climactic point in his ongoing investigations of the sacred and profane, focusing on (Catholic) religion and the antipodes of faith and dogma.

This should come as no surprise, given that Verhoeven previously crucifiedand then resurrected the hero of RoboCop (1987), and hoped to follow up that Hollywood breakthrough with a never-realized Schwarzenegger spectacular about the Crusades, not to mention his longtime dream project of a Jesus movie; when the latter project fell through, he poured years of research into his 2008 book Jesus of Nazareth, portraying the son of God as “a revolutionary like Che Guevara.” (In Benedetta, by contrast, the heroine’sown visions of Jesus are rendered in an elevated, even overheated reverential style, their content violent and erotic in nature.) Set roughly a century earlier than Benedetta, Verhoeven’s first big international co-production, Flesh+Blood (1985), also incorporated a religious element into its tale of a renegade band of medieval mercenaries via the plague and the people’s penchant for superstition,both of them easily exploited by powerful institutions both secular and religious.

Drawing on two favourite films from Verhoeven’s days as a teenage cinephile, Flesh+Blood presented an unlikely but potent fusion of the soul-searching existentialism of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and the swashbuckling effervescence of Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate (1952)—to mix metaphors, the two sides of the Verhoeven coin in a nutshell. (On the one hand, European auteurist film culture conjoined with the continental inheritance ofpainting, philosophy, Surrealism, etc.; on the other, Hollywood’s art of industrial entertainment.) But by drawing on a more diverse roster that ranges from Jess Franco to Carl Theodor Dreyer (though not pretending to be “braver than Joan of Arc”), Benedetta conforms to the tenets of an inherently disreputable but also misunderstood genre whose catchy designation is probably better known than any of its representative examples: the nunsploitation film. 

Nunsploitation was particularly popular in Europe (and especially in Italy, where Benedetta is set) during the ’70s, its flowering probably instigated by Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)—a film to which Verhoeven’s newest is closely related, albeit more in themes and content than execution. Both are based on historical cases, or rather on distinguished nonfiction accounts of same (curiously, nunsploitation in general involves a lot of adaptations of real events or literary works of a high pedigree, or both): Verhoeven’s starting point was American historian Judith C. Brown’s book Immoral Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, while Russell drew upon The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley’s chronicleof the outbreak of possessions in the Loudun nunnery in 1634 and the notorious witchcraft trial that ensued, as well as John Whiting’s theatrical adaptation thereof. Russell, who called The Devils his one avowedly political film, conceived of it as an allegory of brainwashing, having the modern media in the back of his mind—a spin that surely seems all the more pungent in the age of fake news and COVID-19 misinformation. Although it was finished before the pandemic hit, Verhoeven’s film taps into this same vein even as it complicates the attendant issues considerably, the director’s typical ambiguity informing a finale equally as fiery as Russell’s.

Like Benedetta, The Devils is about a show trial, and both films repeatedly foreground theatrical displays, especially those of power. Russell even opens with a gay performance at the French king’s court, in whichthe monarch’s cross-dressing appearance as Botticelli’s Venus provokes cheers of “His Majesty triumphs again!” while Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) hardly suppresses yawns, instead contemplating “a new France where Church and State are one” and no Protestant shall rise again (later, the king stages an amusement in which he playfully shoots Huguenots). One thorn in Richelieu’s side is the fortified town of Loudun, which is governed by the proud and proudly philandering priest Urban Grandier (Oliver Reed, in one of his signature performances). Grandier is also the unwitting object of desire for the hunchbacked and horny abbess of the local Ursuline convent, Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave). When she accuses the priest as the source of her demonic possession and literally and figuratively whips the sisters in her charge into sexually frenzied mass hysteria, she paves the way for Richelieu’s politically expedient solution of burning Grandier at the stake as a warlock.

Russell’s penchant for mannered stylization and ornate visuals rarely worked so well as in The Devils, serving up a surreal parade of plague-related grotesqueriesthat begins with maggots raining down from a skeleton broken on the wheel in a landscape littered with execution posts. The baroque style profits from Derek Jarman’s memorable set design, which gives the city walls and interiors of Loudun a bathhouse whiteness that stands at odds with the dirty shenanigans, even as it emphasizes the theatrical aspect of the proceedings. While Verhoeven gives a few direct nods to Russell in Benedetta, notably with the plague imagery (the first view of the city square is a skeleton dance), his stylization is decidedly less obtrusive—notwithstanding a prolonged sequence bathed in the pink light of a comet passing over the monastery that the crowd quickly accepts as a bad omen, an opportunity Benedetta seizes with typical cunning, having learned early that public displays of her self-proclaimed holiness are a sure-fire method of gaining attention and adoration.

Opening with a tongue-in-cheek display of childhood preordination, Benedetta introduces its title character as she is taken to the abbey by her parents. When waylaid by a group of robbers that might be the offspring of Flesh+Blood’svenal soldiers, precocious little Benedetta swears she hears the voice of the Virgin, and is rewarded with the divine sign of…a bird shitting into the bald bandit leader’s eye. This pattern will work throughout the film: most alleged miracles around Benedetta will be taken at face value and, while some are genuinely mysterious, all of them ultimately remain unproven, even dubious (e.g., whenever she spouts new stigmata, bloody shards are nearby). And yet, the small tyke’s improbable triumph over the robbers sets up Benedetta as a quintessential Verhoeven heroine, driven in equal parts by vitality and opportunism to assert herself in the director’s universe—what his fan Jacques Rivette once succinctly described as “surviving in a world populated by assholes.”

After surviving the fall of a Mary statue upon her while praying (inexplicably unhurt, she lies underneath and starts sucking on the exposed breast of the Holy Mother effigy), little Benedetta already courts the miraculous, for which she is reprimanded by the abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling, convincingly playing a constantly calculating pragmatic destined for an unexpected fate). Eighteen years later, Benedetta emerges as a fully formed Verhoeven blonde—a radiant Virginie Efira, projecting the sexy, resourceful, and sometimes vaguely threatening born-survivor femininity previously embodied by Monique van de Ven in Turkish Delight and Keetje Tippel (1973), Renée Soutendijk in Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983), Jennifer Jason Leigh in Flesh+Blood, Sharon Stone in Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls (1995), and Carice van Houten in Black Book—and wastes little time in dethroning the stoic Mother Superior.

Benedetta’s first claim to being chosen is after she’s assaulted by visions of biblical snakes, which are soon superseded by the Saviour himself. In one such stylized appearance, Jesus cleaves and beheads his way through a group of rapists attacking Benedetta; in another, hanging on the cross, he asks her to remove his loincloth and embrace him, sharing his stigmata upon touching. Whether Benedetta’s holy wounds are a “real” miracle or self-inflicted is beside the point for the local elites of the Tuscan town of Pescia, as a new abbess touched by God may deliver the “cartographic miracle” (read: something that brings pilgrims and money) that they have yearned for.

As a prospective saint promising commercial possibilities, Benedetta has an unlikely forebear in the eponymous protagonist of The Song of Bernadette (1944), Henry King’s adaptation of Jewish novelist Franz Werfel’s devout book about the teenage girl whose Marian apparitions made Lourdes a site of pilgrimage/tourism. King’s delicate prestige picture belongs to a group of respected films that laid the foundations for nunsploitation, concerned as it is not only with the material exploitation of the miraculous, but also in establishing the key dichotomy of dogma versus faith—not to mention a soft version of the frequent inquisitory subplot, as Vincent Price’s silk-gloved Imperial Prosecutor dreads the adulation for Jennifer Jones’ meek heroine (“a religious fanatic”) and despairs “that such a thing could happen in the 19th century!” Elsewhere in King’s film, an embittered nun declares that “A convent is no prison. No force is exercised here…The door is always open,” pointing to another pillar of nunsploitation: its close relationship to another concurrent fad, the woman-in-prison-movie. This connection was made explicit in Robert Bresson’s first feature, Les anges du péché (1943), which is predicated on the reformation of a wrongly imprisoned woman who joins a Dominican convent after her release—though not before she kills the man responsible for her incarceration, following a supremely Bressonian moment in which she calmly buys the murder weapon as if it were a steak. (“Do you want a big or a small gun?” “Medium.”)

Naturally drawn toward action and vitality, the prison angle is only of tangential interest to Verhoeven (though he skilfully milks the voyeuristic possibilities occasioned by oppressive spaces): his analysis of power structures typically foregrounds the connection to money and class issues. Nevertheless, like much conventional convent cinema, Benedetta is indebted to Jacques Rivette’s La religieuse (1966), which fashioned from Denis Diderot’s 18th-century novel what is perhaps the strictest filmic expression of convent-as-prison repression. More to the point, it also features lesbian advances from Liselotte Pulver’s worldly Mother Superior toward Anna Karina’s doomed nun-against-her-wishes, and devotes ample time to outlining the privileged economic basis necessary for convent life. Interestingly, that angle is taken up by many early nunsploitation films, maybe to give credence to the claim that their veneer of criticism with regards to social inequality and institutional repression is not just a coating for the taboo nudity that remained their most marketable commodity. Five years before Rivette, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s treatment of the aftermath of the Loudun possession case, Mother Joan of the Angels, translated that institutional criticism into an atmosphere of bleak terror amidst barren black-and-white wastelands and deluded self-sacrifice. (It’s worth noting that the Rivette, Kawalerowicz, and Russell films all underline their critical stance with striking modernist music; it’s perhaps no wonder that Penderecki drew on similar inspiration for his atonal 1969 opera The Devils of Loudun.)

Verhoeven is irreverently straightforward about this, as usual. Benedetta’s admittance to the convent is preceded by deliciously barbed negotiations between her father and the abbess about the price of entry that makes the robbers encountered previously look naive in retrospect. The Mother Superior’s scornful exhortation—“Don’t haggle for 25 gold coins like a Jew!”—compounds this mercenary cynicism with the spectre of discrimination, soon to be topped by another nun’s confession: “My father was circumcised. This is a sin that cannot be forgiven.” (It is impossible not to be reminded of the disapproving looks that van Houten’s incognito Jew receives from her Christian helpers near the beginning of Black Book.) When Benedetta’s dad visits again 18 years later and is asked to shell out a second time for the admission of Bartolomea, a girl that has escaped her abusive family, it says everything about the social situation: poor Bartolomea is basically bought as a present for rich kid Benedetta, like you would give a teddy bear to a child.

Unlike a stuffed animal, this spirited, uncivilized girl—her bonding with the more elevated Benedetta starts when they take a crap together, which introduces Bartolomea to the hitherto unknown sight of a latrine with seats—manages to arouse unknown feelings in her guardian. At first Benedetta rejects the temptation, even forcing Bartolomea to put her hands into boiling water in which she has dropped rolls of silk, alluding to a memorable image of historical exploitation in Keetje Tippel. But upon their slightly deferred corporeal consummation, these newfound feelings find powerful release, making Benedetta moan as ecstatically as her visions of Jesus did. Despite his avowed fascination for the sacred, Verhoeven views the spiritual foremost as a function of worldly needs and desires, not to mention as a corrective for inequality and suppression endured elsewhere in life.

One needn’t be a materialist to make that connection, as evidenced by Pressburger and Powell’s Black Narcissus (1946)—the Technicolor nexus from which springs all exploration of repressed sexual tensions in nunsploitation—or the film that set up the national perimeters for the copious production of what was also known as the tonaca movie in Italy: Eriprando Visconti’s The Nun of Monza (1969), about the famous case of Sister Virginia Maria, who gave birth to two children, was complicit in the coveredup murder of another nun, and was finally tried and sentenced to being walled in roughly 15 years before the real Benedetta was investigated. More of a historical drama with sensational and racy overtonesthan a true example of nunsploitation, this film by Visconti the lesser (his uncle Luchino had previously pursued the project) set the template for Domenico Paolella’s outstanding 1973 diptych The Nun and the Devil and Story of a Cloistered Nun (whose opening montage includes the iconic and oft-copied shot of novices lying prone on the ground from Mother Joan of the Angels).Although Paolella’s films feature glimpses of the sex and violence that soon came to dominate nunsploitation, their focus is on the solidarity of relationships as antidote to corrupt and vicious institutions—a theme befitting a director who coined the indelible saying, “peplum is the poor man’s psychoanalysis.” (Story of a Cloistered Nun even climaxes with a variation on the iconic “I am Spartacus!” scene, when all the sisters claim to be the mother of a nun’s child.)

Harbouring no such illusions, Verhoeven instead illustrates the inequality present in even the most loving relationships. Benedetta is full of complex mirroring motifs, some of them distorted, like the metal plate Benedetta uses as reflector to look at her breast, or a full water bottle that serves as a magnifying lens (both bespeaking Verhoeven’s keen interest in atmospheric historical detail). One of the most pungent examples concerns the two closest relationships in the film, neither of which can withstand outside pressures, the younger taking the fall in both cases (one literally). Not only is a wedge inevitably driven between Benedetta and Bartolomea, but also between the abbess Felicita and her own daughter, who, implicitly groomed as her mother’s successor, is rendered a lonely protestor when Benedetta is made the new Mother Superior, with predictably self-flagellating, ultimately fatal results. The moment when Rampling’s abbess silently tries to contain her daughter echoes the finale of the extraordinary Le dialogue des Carmélites (1960)—about the 1794 guillotining of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, after they refused the new Revolutionary authorities’ demand that they renounce their vocation—in which Alida Valli’s prioress gives Jeanne Moreau’s Mother Superior a similar tacit sign that she must not join in the martyrdom of her sisters so that the order can live on. (Notably, the film reteamed Resistance member and Dominican priest Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, co-writer of Les anges du péché, with that film’s cinematographer, Philippe Agostini, the two sharing the directing credit.)

But such abstract goals are anathema to Verhoeven’s protagonists. For Benedetta, martyrdom is not something one aspires to, but rather the ultimate trump card in the power struggle. “After all, we have to play our roles, right?” as Wilson’s nuncio spells it out after arriving in Pescia at the behest of the former abbess to investigate Benedetta, whose obstinacy and influence have made her an inconvenience for the higher powers, just like Grandier in The Devils. Verhoeven piles up the ironies even as he ratchets up tension for the sustained showdown, with pride of place given to the journey through plague country, showing both the nuncio and Felicita bemused and slightly appalled at the putrid victims. “Don’t let me die like this,” one man cries, clinging to the nuncio’s carriage, which rolls on after the dismissive reprimand, “Go to your parish priest,” so that the nuncio likely never hears the doomed man’s answer: “I am the parish priest.” Of course, the papal ambassador and his companion will bring the plague to the city locked down by Benedetta, who has promised the inhabitants safety as long as she lives.

Thus, the power dynamic produces devilish reversals: what the Church sees as abominable sexual transgression is simply a welcome reason for the nuncio to sentence Benedetta to the stake, to the chagrin of many. Much has been written about the dildo Bartolomea carves for her lover from the little wooden Virgin Mary figure she once brought to the convent as a kid, but for Verhoeven this undoubtedly amusing and deliberately added salacious detail is foremost a reason to historically justify the severe verdict, allowing himself to stage a great cinematic finale the true story lacked. In another ironic zinger, the incriminating dildo is finally uncovered from its hiding place in Benedetta’s book of accounts, bringing the story full circle in its analysis of the relationship between money, sex, and power.

As is brought home by the trial against Benedetta, Verhoeven’s film ultimately has less to do with Walerian Borowczyk’s cadavre exquis-style anthology of nunsploitation Behind Convent Walls (1978)—with its notorious dildo whittled from chestnut wood by a nun who watches the Christ-like male face painted on the other end with a metal-object-mirror while masturbating—than with Gianfranco Mingozzi’s counterculture-influenced Flavia, the Heretic (1974), in which a nun (Florinda Bolkan) becomes so disenchanted with church hypocrisy and a male-dominated order (“Why must it always be men who decide everything?” she asks first, and later, “Why is God male?”) that she joins the enemy during the 1408 Ottoman invasion of Otranto, heeding the advice that “the Muslims can do nothing to you the Christians haven’t done.” But while Flavia’s politically progressive rebellion is defeated in depressing scenes of battle and torture, Benedetta has a few aces up her sleeve.

Demanding (in vain) to be taken to her incarceration at the town square on a donkey, she takes on the aura of Jesus herself—fittingly, her voice, when “possessed” and spouting divine revelations, turns to a male timbre. Stoking the emotions of the agitated and disappointed crowd, she even unveils an “Angel of Death,” proudly presenting plague pestilence. As in The Devils, rising hysteria comes to a fever pitch, but if in Russell’s film the manipulated masses simply get worked up into a state of “euphoria about something completely beside the point” (in the director’s words), Benedetta grants them a murderous insurrection against the authorities that, while it may temporarily feel like a revolution, effects neither change nor greater insight into the actual workings of power. As such, Benedetta speaks dismayingly to our moment.