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‘Benedetta’ review: Erotic nun drama goes beyond nunsploitation

The Virgin Mary?

Benedetta is the latest movie from Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven to shock audiences. The biographical drama is loosely based on the 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. The plot follows the titular nun and her rise from sisterhood to something far greater to her arrested for being accused of sapphism.

The premise sounds like nunsploitation fodder taken straight out of a 1970s grindhouse theater. While the film never comes across as exploitative, it certainly walks a very thin line. Benedetta is filled with graphic nudity and sex. Many films have touched on the connection between religion and lust. A lot of those tropes come across in Verhoeven’s release, but there is something different to it.

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Equating a religious epiphany to a sexual release is not a novel idea in storytelling. Benedetta does not so much try to connect the two as show how they can both live individually in the same space. It makes for a very interesting tale. Not only is Benedetta deeply religious, she is also experiencing a sexual awakening. Both are happening independently of each other adding to her confusion.

Almost all of Benedetta’s life has been surrounded by religion, so it only makes sense that she would tie the two together. This is seen in some interesting – and sometimes comical- dreams involving Jesus Christ. It also blurs the line between sex and the church. Benedetta does make some missteps along the way. There is some neat foreshadowing involving a scandalous toy that is undone by its discovery. It is anticlimactic how things turn out. The ending also sort of just fizzles out in a way that does not match the fire of the rest of the film.

There is so much good that these flaws should not ruin anyone’s enjoyment. Much like Ken Russell’s The Devils, there is a scathing mix of zealotry and hypocrisy. The characters are compelling and will capture attention for more than just the scenes involving religious dildos. There is a heart to the movie. It sometime gets lost in the religious panic Verhoeven seems so intent on pushing, but there is more here than just titillation.

Benedetta opens in select theaters December 3 

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