Credit: IFC
by Sean Gilman Film

Best Films of 2021: Benedetta

January 8, 2022

Honorable Mention: It’s Christmas, the time of miracles, and there’s been no greater cinematic miracle this holiday/award season than the fact that Paul Verhoeven was allowed to make another movie. And a miracle of a film it is: a nunsploitation movie that delivers, as Verhoeven always does, on all the salacious pleasures and hot sacrilegious action one could ask for from such an exercise. But it’s also a deeply clever riff on the possibility of miracles, the power of faith and belief, the dangers of hypocrisy, and the threat of plague. A perfect film for our cynical, disease-haunted time.

Benedetta is a young woman of apparently devout faith living in medieval Italy. She manifests miracles at a young age: a bird to shit on a threatening bandit, a statue of the Virgin falling on her but rather than crushing her, offering her a tasty breast. That these could be simple coincidences seems beside the point: Benedetta surely seems to think they are real evidence of her divine favor, and she grows up sure of her Chosen One status, a celebrity among her fellow nuns. And as with all successful people, Benedetta believes her own hype, to the point that as she grows up, she appears to begin to take an active role in the creation of her miracles. She also, thanks to her special personal relationship with God, comes to see her every action as divinely inspired: if she’s favored by God, then anything she does (like, say, embarking on a passionate, borderline NC-17 affair with a fellow nun) is God’s Will and therefore Good. QED.

The usual authority figures eventually have enough of Benedetta (despite the economic boon a living saint would bring to their town), and unexpectedly perhaps, call in the Inquisition. There follows gruesome tortures and lofty theological arguments. Is Benedetta a witch, faking stigmata to lead the people astray into the demoniacal pleasures of the flesh? Or is she the true instrument of God, provided by her creator with the shards of pottery she needs, at just the time she needs them, to convince the fearful and unbelieving crowds of the purity and holiness of her sex-positive vision of Love? Verhoeven, true to form, has it both ways. The sacred and the profane, two sides of the same coin. You’d think he can’t just keep getting away with this. But, joy of joys, he always does.