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by Matt Pifko

How did Paul Verhoeven, the filmmaker behind some of the biggest American sci-fi blockbusters of all time, wind up in France directing a low budget ‘nunsploitation’ film about a lesbian Reverend Mother who can channel the powers of God? Was he exiled from Hollywood after a couple box office blunders? Or, was trash his true calling all along, his time spent in the mainstream merely a fluke?

Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. All in all, Benedetta feels like a great filmmaker settling for making something within his comfort zone — meaning, it’s disappointing and exquisite all at once. It also acts as an admission on Verhoeven’s part: despite having created some of the most iconic characters in American pop culture, he never really fit into the Hollywood machine particularly well.

Born and raised in Amsterdam, the Dutch auteur cut his teeth making flashy, horny exploitation films that featured enough full frontal male nudity to make an MPAA member’s eyeballs melt. During this period, he frequently worked with actors Renée Soutendijk and Rutger Hauer, whose fearless, go-for-broke turns in films like The 4th Man and Spetters were early examples of Verhoeven’s knack for directing firecracker performances. His efforts in the United States would be far more commercial and Westernized, but they always retained a bit of this Dutch DNA: a willingness to provoke, a penchant for explicit sexuality, and enough distance so as to see the absurdity of American life clearly.

For a great many years, audiences couldn’t get enough of these debased fantasies. Robocop and Total Recall are two of the most celebrated and successful science fiction films of all time. Basic Instinct, his teasingly thorny erotic thriller, sent America into a frenzy and made Sharon Stone a star overnight. Verhoeven was set to take over the world — that is, until everything suddenly changed.

Showgirls, afforded a budget of about fifty million dollars, was a disaster in every sense of the word. Its very name has become a joke, a sort of descriptor for all things campy, miscalculated, and terminally goofy. Verhoeven attempted to bounce back with the science fiction epic Starship Troopers, but it too suffered from bad reviews and diminishing box office returns. This turn of events has always struck me as odd. Why did audiences decide they were no longer laughing with Verhoeven, but rather at him? Why was it a bad thing that a director famous for injecting his genre work with a sick sense of humor had made a movie that was actually humorous?

Perhaps, with the arrival of Bendetta, the latest strange, hilarious entry in Verhoeven’s oeuvre, we can all finally acknowledge him as one of cinema’s funniest filmmakers: a satirist first and foremost, and always a little skeptical of his source material. After all, this is the man who has gone on record saying he finds the original “Starship Troopers” book to be a vile propaganda puff piece, and only adapted it so that he could tear it apart beat by beat.

And so, Benedetta succeeds because, like all of Verhoeven’s best work, it is caught in that delicious paradox of mythmaking and deconstruction. When you’re ready for it to pull you in, it pushes you away; just when you think it’s about to tease the audience, it strikes with utmost sincerity. Benedetta is not so much a nunsploitation film, really, as an honest to God crisis of faith epic with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. If you think the difference between those two things is nearly indiscernible, that’s because it is. Regardless of whether the audience thinks they’re laughing with him or at him, Verhoeven has them laughing all the same; a generous filmmaker, he has always been happy to let everyone in on the fun, even if they’re not in on the joke.

In order to make this elaborate balancing act succeed, Benedetta requires a team of actors up to the task. Thankfully, this might just be one of Verhoeven’s strongest ensembles to date. While there’s no real Sharon Stone or Isabelle Huppert here (or even an Elizabeth Berkeley), the Benedetta cast is unerringly solid. Benedetta herself, portrayed by Virginie Efira, looks like Samantha from Sex in the City if she were tossed into the Tenet machine and sent back to the 17th century. Part blonde bombshell and part holy messiah, Efira cannot miss a beat on this tightrope walk of tones, and she nails it every step of the way. She lacks the star wattage of Verhoeven’s best leading ladies, but a film as over-the-top as this one benefits from her somewhat understated presence. Benedetta’s lust for her fellow sister feels real and grounds the silliness in something authentically romantic.

Other notable players include Lambert Wilson, best known to American audiences as the loopy Merovingian from the Matrix sequels, who works perfectly as a stuffy, sneaky, very very French papal aristocrat. But the best performer by far is Charlotte Rampling, who makes a meal out of a relatively one-note role: the jealous former Reverend Mother who attempts to use Benedetta’s sapphic love affair as leverage. Rampling hides a devious intelligence behind her austere demeanor, and it’s delightful to watch her transform as that armor falls apart piece by piece.

The film’s greatest weakness lies in its lack of visual craft, which is extremely disappointing coming from a genre veteran like Verhoeven. Even Elle, his 2016 French drama with a much lower budget, had a better sense for staging and composition. There are elaborate sets and sweeping vistas here, but they are shot without purpose or a real sense of scale. Before the film was screened, Verhoeven argued that Benedetta benefits from a big-screen presentation; however, its flat, digital look is more fit for streaming. In the past, when Verhoeven chose to send-up a genre rather than play it straight, it always felt like just that — a choice. If he wanted to, he could shoot action with the best of them. Benedetta, on the other hand, would never work as anything other than a comedy.

So why, why has this filmmaker, a man now in his late eighties, chosen to take on this story of divine intervention and sapphic lust? It’s hard to say, but it could very well be that he feels a kinship with Benedetta. After all, she wrote the book on splitting the difference between trolling a gullible audience and channeling a higher power that might just save them. Both of them understand that the divine and the profane are all the more potent when you mix them together. In a time when all Hollywood blockbusters must be sanitized and sanded down, it’s comforting to know that Verhoeven is still out there in some distant corner of the world, cooking up a nasty piece of work like this.