Does Paul Verhoeven’s controversial ‘nunsploitation’ film betray the real Benedetta?

Virginie Efira as the real life 17th-century nun Benedetta, who scandalised her convent - Alamy
Virginie Efira as the real life 17th-century nun Benedetta, who scandalised her convent - Alamy

“Because it was Paul Verhoeven, I knew from the start that there would be quite a bit more sex in the film than if I were making it,” American academic Judith C Brown cheerfully reflects of Benedetta, the veteran Dutch director’s big-screen version of her celebrated book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. “I went into the project as a consultant on the film with my eyes open realising that historians don’t have the copyright on history.”

Her caution was justified. Verhoeven made his name in Hollywood with films such as RoboCop (1987), Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) by giving his audiences plenty of violence and erotica. And, at 83, he has delivered much the same recipe in Benedetta.

There are arms plunged into boiling vats, the Inquisition torturing naked women, burning of heretics, plague and snakes being beaded galore, with the camera lingering on a good-looking Jesus on the crucifix as his loin cloth is removed. “Paul always wants to push the buttons at the edges of things,” reflects Brown.

The most-talked about scene in reviews features a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary which is used as a sex toy by two nuns in a naked romp behind convent walls. “It is,” Brown finally concedes, “a bit over the top.”

The Belgian actress Virginie Efira stars in the title role as the real-life, 17th-century Benedetta Carlini, mystic and Mother Superior who combines visions of consummating her marriage with Christ as a “bride of Christ” – as nuns were routinely referred to in Christianity – with a passionate affair with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), one of the junior nuns in her abbey in Pescia in Tuscany. The film is arriving in Britain on the back of mixed reviews.

“Saucy nun romance” with more than a hint of Carry On was the verdict of the Guardian’s critic after it was shown at Cannes last year. “Nunsploitation” pronounced another, and complained of too much of the “male gaze” on women’s bodies with the convent’s buttoned-up habits and wimples regularly and casually discarded.

“I would describe myself as a feminist,” muses Brown, “and I don’t know if this ‘male gaze’ is demeaning, but Paul is very sympathetic to women. When you look at a number of his films the women may be self-fulfilling or self-destructive, but they are very active. They are not being acted upon. And that is true too of Benedetta.”

Such a raunchy portrait of what goes on inside a nunnery caused a demonstration by devout Catholics waving placards about blasphemy and defamation when Benedetta premiered at the New York Film Festival in October. “I think they were hilarious,” says 75-year-old Brown of the protesters. Though raised in the Jewish faith in Argentina by parents who escaped Nazism in 1937, she has lived in the States since the age of 12 and observes rather than participates in any organised religion.

By way of counterpoint, she points to the very positive notices Benedetta gained recently in Australia. “I came away less deeply impressed by its nude flesh than by its canonical and juridical passages,” wrote the film reviewer in Canberra City News.

Brown may eventually admit she has her reservations but – unlike screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven’s long-time collaborator who walked away from Benedetta because he thought it was too focused on sexuality – she prefers to concentrate on the positives. For her these come with the director’s seriousness of purpose historically and theologically.

“We had a lot of discussions along the way and I remember at one point in exasperation, Paul said to me, ‘Judith, I took 7 out of your last 11 comments…’ That is the relationship between the historian and the filmmaker.”

The film sees Benedetta use a wooden Virgin Mary statue to pleasure herself
The film sees Benedetta use a wooden Virgin Mary statue to pleasure herself

Even when he departs from her account of Benedetta Carlini, whose story she unearthed by accident in the late 1970s in Florence’s Medici archives as an aspiring academic at Berkeley and later Stanford “looking for a footnote”, Brown insists that Verhoeven, who also co-wrote the script, usually does so cleverly.

“He takes things that were in my [1985] book but which did not necessarily take place in Benedetta’s convent. He does that in order to make certain points and I thought that those were great.”

In her introduction, she recounts, she had mentioned in passing that there was a nun in another convent in Pescia who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism. “That’s all I said. It was all I knew.”

However, Verhoeven includes in the film a Jewish nun called Sister Jacopa (Guilaine Londez) “in a very moving set of scenes”. He did so, Brown suggests, “because anti-Semitism was very important to Paul growing up as he did in Holland in the Second World War.”

Even on the delicate subject of that unorthodox dildo, she adds, Verhoeven didn’t entirely make it up to shock or titillate. “It didn’t happen in this convent but I did write in the introduction about another convent in Pescia in which they discovered a dildo hidden in a shoe when it was taken to be mended. It wasn’t a statue of Mary, just a piece of wood, but Paul took that detail and used it in a particular way to make certain points.”

Her willingness to give the controversial director license with her much admired and still read 36-year-old book is not boundless. though. One loss that she particularly regrets is the film’s eclipse of the figure of Splenditello who, in the written accounts of how Benedetta justified her lack of chastity when put on trial, was a male angel who took over her body.

“I missed Splenditello in the film,” says Brown. “In Immodest Acts I made the point that Benedetta had no way to conceive of a same-sex relationship. This was a society in which you can’t even give a name to it. So she explained it to herself by saying she became Splenditello and was male when she was having sex with Bartolomea.”

Fans of her book, she says, have made the same point to her about his absence (even if angels in Catholic theology are usually androgynous and never have sex). It matters because it goes to the heart of Benedetta’s story.

The real Bendetta Carlini went to prison for her 'crimes' - Wikipedia
The real Bendetta Carlini went to prison for her 'crimes' - Wikipedia

In the film, the crucial ambiguity in the narrative is around Benedetta’s motives. Splenditello’s inclusion might have shown how hard she was struggling to reconcile her feelings with her vocation. Without him, she comes over as more cynical and brazen.

“We cannot know for sure about her,” reflects Brown, “because all her visions were very self-referential. You don’t know where delusion or self-interest starts or ends.”

That mystery is part of the appeal of Benedetta Carlini: what drew Brown to her when she stumbled on her story, long lost in a collection of miscellaneous items in dusty archives; what intrigued the cast (which also includes Charlotte Rampling as the Mother Superior who Benedetta unseats) when the author met them for a much enjoyed pre-filming briefing; and what made her book so talked about when it was first published.

“Back then so little had been written about this subject. In terms of a fleshed out story – so to speak – from the 17th century it may have been the earliest one.” And one that continues to resonate. “What her story is about is the desire of someone to be recognised and seen. It’s a story of how, in some ways tragically, she overcomes the limitations imposed on her.”

Benedetta Carlini, Brown says, wanted to be remembered. For her “crimes”, she spent the second half of her life locked up in the convent’s prison, dying there at the age of 70. “Yet in a diary I found from the time of her death, it is clear that she had retained a following outside. She was alive in memories and that is the kind of triumph she would have wanted.”

So a film of her life, however revealing, might have been grist to that mill. Far from being exploited by Paul Verhoeven then, you could even argue the boot may be on the other foot.

Benedetta is in cinemas now