Several reviewers have described Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021) as a lesbian nunsploitation drama. Reports about the film, which had its world premiere at the Cannes film festival, invariably mention its provocative sex scenes, in particular the scene where two women pleasure themselves with a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. Benedetta was banned in Russia, allegedly on the basis of such reports; in the United States, conservative Catholics protested against the “blasphemous” picture during the New York Film Festival in September 2021. For Verhoeven, however, these sorts of reactions might even be said to be tame. Many of his films have met with far greater controversy, and among less predictable groups: in his presumedly tolerant native country, the Netherlands, his fifth feature film, Spetters (1980), prompted outrage from the gay community as well as the women’s movement because of (among other provocations) an anal gang-rape that makes a homophobic character realize that he himself has gay desires; the psycho-sexual thriller Basic Instinct (1992), his third Hollywood production, was denounced for its negative treatment of bisexual characters; and its successor, Showgirls (1995), about strippers in Las Vegas, was scorned for its abundant nudity, its ridiculous dialogue, and its hysterical performances. Now critically rehabilitated, Showgirls is currently hailed as a “masterpiece of shit”: at once terrible and brilliant. The older readings dismissing the film as trash have given way to the view that it exposes “the rot of our misogynist culture.”1

Coming after Elle (2016), Benedetta is Verhoeven’s second film to be produced in France with additional support from companies in Belgium and the Netherlands. Set in the 17th century, the film centers on a young woman in a convent in Pescia, Tuscany, who claims to have miraculous encounters. In the wake of a nocturnal apparition of Jesus on the cross, Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) exhibits remarkable, Christ-like wounds. Are they signs of stigmata? They can only be termed miraculous if officially acknowledged as such. A doctor is called to examine Benedetta’s wounds in order to determine their status. He is unsure, since usually the forehead is marked as well, but not very long afterwards Benedetta is injured just below her hairline. She is promoted to serve as the new abbess, but her defanged predecessor seeks revenge after witnessing Benedetta’s erotic encounters with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a peasant girl turned nun. Bartolomea had been accepted into the convent at the behest of Benedetta, whose father paid for the girl’s admission.


Benedetta is inspired by the study Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986) by the historian Judith C. Brown. The screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, a frequent scriptwriter for Verhoeven from 1969 (the television series Floris) to 2006 (Zwartboek / Black Book), alerted the director to this study. They eventually had a falling out over the book’s adaptation, and thus Soeteman is not mentioned in the credits. Whatever vision the screenwriter may have possessed for the film, Benedetta offers numerous parallels with two pictures Verhoeven made in the 1980s, both scripted by Soeteman: the gothic neo-noir De vierde man (The Fourth Man, 1983) and the satirical medieval action flick Flesh+Blood (1985). In this article my aim is twofold. First, I will argue how these two pictures from the 1980s, with their peculiar “contracts,” shed light on the acts of faith performed in Verhoeven’s Benedetta. Second, I will claim that even though the overall reception to Benedetta was fairly benevolent, the film is not likely to leave as lasting an impression as some of Verhoeven’s films that initially met with harsh criticism. The larger a (political) controversy, the more probable it is that a film will stick in the viewer’s memory – as evident from the famous nun opus The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971), whose ideological agenda is ultimately more daring than Benedetta’s.

The Fourth Man: “I Lie the Truth”

Despite a huge lapse in time from his 1980s films, Benedetta can be considered the third instalment in a trilogy, following De vierde man and Flesh+Blood, about characters who experience “religious epiphanies,” feigned or not.2 Verhoeven himself has said that Benedetta interested him because she manipulates people perhaps without realizing that she is manipulating them.3 We find this thematic obsession in the two films from the 1980s as well, but in each case the nature of the manipulation differs. De vierde man, Verhoeven’s sixth feature made in the Netherlands, is about Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé), a writer who takes things lightly, even frivolously, in life. Lecturing in a small seaside city, he tells his audience that the essence of his authorship resides in the paradox “I lie the truth… just as long as I start to believe it myself.”4 He presents his idea seriously, but one can and perhaps should take his assertion ironically. The same goes for his statement that being Catholic does not equal being stupid – to be Catholic is instead to open oneself up to the domain of the fantastic.

De vierde man illustrates that Gerard’s imagination tends to run wild. A seemingly daily situation veers into a surreal, often nightmarish scene, only suddenly to revert to “normal,” usually thanks to some (colour) analogy: blood in a daydream transforms into tomato juice oozing from a bag. Gerard gets acquainted with Christine Halslag (Renée Soutendijk), a blonde who owns the beauty parlour Sphinx, a name transformed due to some failing neon into spin (Dutch for spider) on the sign outside. Gerard decides to stay over for more than one night after seeing a photograph of the half-naked Herman (Thom Hoffman), a handsome youth who is Christine’s lover. Herman, Christine complains, is very un-romantic, but Gerard claims to have occult gifts and promises that these powers can change the youth, if she takes him to her house. These purported supernatural talents are a mere pretext for him to meet Herman, but Gerard’s sudden visions start to manifest themselves as if he really were in possession of such gifts. When he accidently finds out that all the husbands of the thrice-married Christine have died in gruesome accidents, he becomes convinced that she is deceiving him about her identity. Gerard fears that a terrible fate awaits him, but in the end it is Herman who is the fourth man to die. At the same spot where we have already seen Christine driving excessively fast, Herman ignores the speed limit and smashes into the iron tubes on a truck, which pierce his eye. The crash is fatal for Herman, and Gerard, the front passenger in the car, is hospitalized and in a state of shock.

In the hospital a blonde woman (Geert de Jong) who has already crossed his path several times is his nurse. She had been a customer in Christine’s salon and had told him that when you are being warned you have to listen. Gerard gave a customary ironic reply (“People who listen, are they still around?”), but he happens to see her at every crucial turn of events and becomes convinced that he and this stranger are bound by a silent “contract.” She is his guardian angel, and he calls her “Maria,” for in his eyes she has protected him against the evil witch Christine. The doctor thinks Gerard is suffering from delusions, unduly blaming the ill-fated, tragic widow. Despite his reputation as an ironic jester, the writer himself has come to think that he is truly gifted with second sight. For him, the frequent appearances of the blonde “Maria” in her blue coat are no longer coincidental but instead are meaningful, in fact life-saving.

The Fourth Man

Gerard from De vierde man has proved himself to be a “Catholic”: someone who has opened himself up to the domain of the fantastic. He started as a frivolous character, but developed into a man of high seriousness. Like Gerard, Benedetta also believes in miraculous encounters but unlike him she seems convinced of her supernatural abilities from the start, as the first scene suggests. A young Benedetta is on her way to Pescia when she and her travel companions are halted by robbers. One of the gang takes her mother’s necklace and, little though she may be, Benedetta steps forward and warns the thieves that the Virgin Mary will punish them. To the great delight of the group, at that very moment a bird flies over and drops its shit in one of the men’s eyes. Is this act sheer coincidence or a miracle? Benedetta does not act surprised, suggesting she really believes that the Virgin Mary intervened via the bird. This pattern will continue throughout the film: she takes it for granted that she has encounters with Christ, for life at the convent has prepared her to be his bride. Whereas some take her claims about apparitions and the heavy voice as part of a cunning strategy and a lust for power, she is probably sincere in believing that she has privileged access to Christ. Just like Gerard in De vierde man, Benedetta performs an act of faith, but does so with a fundamental difference. Gerard is utterly surprised that he has discovered the “truth” of his dark hallucinations: when he sees Herman in one of his spooky dreams as Christ on the cross it excites him, but it also worries him and he fears something terrible will happen. Benedetta, however, experiences her visions of Christ on the cross as epiphanies, and it seems she firmly believes in her unique connection to Him. Whereas Gerard from De vierde man goes from sceptic to believer, Benedetta takes the visions, from the start, to be a form of indisputable guidance: her performance is unwavering throughout, as if no uncertainties ever occur to her.

Flesh+Blood: Perverse Enjoyment

It may be, however, that Benedetta represents the other side of the coin and is to be regarded as a combination of Martin (Rutger Hauer) and Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from Flesh+Blood, a film set in medieval times. Verhoeven made Flesh+Blood after De vierde man and the film, shot in Spain, was Verhoeven’s first international coproduction. Martin is head of a motley crew and his leadership is partly determined by superstition. Members of the troupe carry along with them a gigantic statue, the Charity of St. Martin, and a chaplain among the group, simply called “the Cardinal” (Ronald Lacey), treats the sculpture as a totemic signpost. In the eyes of the Cardinal, the statue gives the crew holy instructions. Martin himself attaches no value to the signs but simply uses the Cardinal’s interpretations to his own advantage. If necessary, he manipulates the statue so that the deluded Cardinal reads in it a sign that suits Martin’s strategy. Benedetta’s visions may well serve a similar function. Just as Martin uses the statue as an ordinary, exploitable object that helps him to reinforce his authority, the nun’s visions could be fabrications, invented with the aim of making all the believers surrounding her dance to her tune.

But comparison of Benedetta and Agnes is at least as significant, if not more so. Princess Agnes is a young virgin who is intrigued by sex: she had ordered her maid Kathleen (Nancy Cartwright) to make love in the open air with her soldier-boyfriend so she can watch and learn from them. Kathleen enjoys getting laid and shouts “I’ll take you” repetitively. After Martin’s crew has robbed a caravan, Martin presents Agnes to his men, declaring ironically: “St. Martin has sent us a little angel to play with.” After Agnes has burnt the naked buttocks of one of the fighters, Martin requests to hold her tightly and gives his crew precise instructions: move her; show me her face. When he is on top of her, there is a role reversal, when she says: “If you think you’re hurting me, you’re wrong. I like it. I like it. I’ll take you. I’ll take you!,” in a repetition of her maid’s example. Except for Celine, Martin’s former mistress, the group laughs at the idea that it is not Martin raping the prince’s daughter but rather Martin who is being raped. Agnes then asks “my brave soldier” to go on, again parroting Kathleen.


Initially, the hierarchy seems clear: he was the master and she the spineless prey, but her active stance not only surprises Martin but also triggers his perverse desire. It fascinates him that she knows how to have things her way, which becomes key to a silent contract. She prods Martin to make the group eat with knife and fork; they make the group accept that the two of them can take a bath together; the two of them start to wear white clothes instead of the obligatory red, thus creating a special position among the group. At the same time, Agnes jeopardizes the safety of the group when the motley crew takes captive Steven Arnolfini (Tom Burlinson), a young nobleman to whom Agnes has been betrothed. In some sort of pact with Steven, she neglects warning the members of Martin’s group when dead dog meat has infected well water they are about to drink. With a mixture of fear and excitement, she looks on when the group members drink the lethal water, up till when Martin is about to take a sip. Her intervention does not mean that she has chosen him, as the older version of Steven, but she prolongs the existence of the double contract: by being brutal, Martin acts as an instrument of her enjoyment, whereas the smart and younger Steven is the object of her desire. Moreover, she seems to derive excitement from the two men vying for her, so the rivalry as such is a source of pleasure for her. She hits Martin’s head near the end of Verhoeven’s film, but only to ensure that Steven is not killed. Significantly, after Martin’s crew is exterminated by the army of Steven’s father, only Agnes observes that Martin has left the castle alive, but she keeps silent about his escape. The film ends, but we can presume that the rivalry will continue and so, too, her perverse enjoyment.

Whereas Agnes’ perverse enjoyment is determined by the ways she plays the two men against each other, Benedetta’s enjoyment is the consequence of a different kind of interplay. In his review of Benedetta, Jordan Mintzer observes that every time Bartolomea makes passes at Benedetta, “the latter experiences another vision, as if the prospect of sexual ecstasy brings her closer to Christ.”5 Bartolomea does not seem to be aware of such an impact, but Verhoeven’s film hints at an interplay between intimate touching and mystic revelation. Benedetta is taught to be chaste, but the fact that the nuns must consider their bodies their worst enemies makes her yield to carnal pleasures and to enjoy what is forbidden. Her transgressive acts, however, seem to serve as a catalyst for her visionary encounters with Christ – and vice versa. But if her sexual experiences stimulate these encounters, then her (lesbian) desires are at the root of her manipulative behaviour. That is to say, her desires have provoked the apparitions, which in the end are the grounds for her promotion to abbess. 

In short, there are three ways to understand Benedetta’s enigma, although a decisive resolution of it is impossible. If we tend to see her in the lineage of Martin from Flesh+Blood, then Benedetta is to be regarded as a cynical character. She profits from the belief of others while consciously play-acting her own display of belief: her act of faith is insincere. If we consider Benedetta to be a successor to Agnes, she excels in manipulation. The two women – relatively young and innocent – understand all too quickly how best to exploit their positions as “brides.” Agnes knows perfectly well how to play the two male competitors against each other, whereas Benedetta uses the visions of her “lover” Christ to cement a solid bond with her earthly lover Bartolomea – who, despite her serious doubts about the stigmata, understands the benefits of taking Benedetta’s status for granted. Her act of faith is strategic and her partner Bartolomea, for her part, keeps quiet about her suspicions. If we tend to see Benedetta, however, as a companion to Gerard Reve from De vierde man, then we would see her as sincere with regard to her fantastic encounters with Christ. In that sense she is an utterly Catholic character who has, according to Gerard’s definition, opened herself up to the domain of the fantastic. She manipulates everyone around her but does so unwittingly, in good faith.

A PG-ified Version of The Devils

Despite all this ambiguity, Verhoeven’s Benedetta has elicited less enthusiastic responses than several of his previous films: in the Cannes critic ratings, it scored a 7.09, above average but not spectacular. To grasp what lies at the core of this reception, let me compare Benedetta to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Russell’s film caused a hullabaloo at the time of its release, and one of its scenes, known as “The Rape of Christ,” was censored. Despite relentless efforts by critic Mark Kermode to have the fragment brought back into the film, Warner Bros., which owns the movie, has never released an uncut version of The Devils. It is tempting to suggest that the combination of exorcism and nudity was too sacrilegious a cocktail, as much in 1971 as it is some fifty years later, but I would rather like to entertain the option that The Devils owes its notoriety to its status as a political allegory.6 In Russell’s film, set in the French commune of Loudun in the 1630s, the libertine Jesuit priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is burnt at the stake after the hunchbacked mother superior Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) has made accusations that he has violated both her and her fellow sisters with a demonic incubus. Sister Jeanne was infatuated with Grandier but though the priest has sexual affairs, he is out of her league, particularly after his recent marriage initiated via a secret ceremony. When she asks him to become the spiritual director of the convent, he declines the offer. This refusal infuriates her, and she pursues his grudge against him by spreading the word that he is capable of black magic. Russell described The Devils as his only political film: the focus shifts to the sly and devious ways the powers-that-be misuse Sister Jeanne’s statements. The authorities are aware that her indictment is false but pressure her to adhere to her accounts of what happened, which then can justify their elimination of the priest who is obstructing their interests. Russell himself mentioned that the film, though about events from centuries ago, was a “political statement worth making,” because “corruption and mass brainwashing by Church and State” are ineradicable.7

The Devils

If The Devils is still regarded as a scandalous picture, disliked by its studio, my guess is that this attitude is only indirectly related to the offensive sex scenes that occur during the staging of exorcism. Censorship of such scenes is usually meant to distract attention from what is truly subversive, in this case namely the fierce critique of an unholy alliance between religious and political authorities. In the vein of Russell’s picture, Soeteman’s interest in Brown’s documentation of the history of Sister Benedetta was prompted by the power struggles among clerical people, and her illicit sexual affairs were embedded in this strife. Verhoeven, however, wanted to put greater emphasis on the erotic adventures of its protagonist Benedetta with the frivolous Bartolomea.

Verhoeven’s film is at its political best in showing how the key characters have a personal interest in fostering belief – or not – in the miracle. There is the commercial argument: a miracle will attract tourists, and thus the provost of Pescia (Olivier Rabourdin) promotes Benedetta as a replacement for Mother Superior Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) as the new abbess as a way of confirming that a miracle has happened in Pescia. Bartolomea thinks that the wounds are self-inflicted (with shards of pottery), but she keeps this belief close to her vest, since she benefits from Benedetta’s promotion to the best room in the convent: and as her companion she is permitted to sleep there as well. Felicita’s daughter Christine (Louise Chevillotte), however, is furious and announces in public that Benedetta is a false prophet. Her mother, a woman well versed in power mechanisms, tries to calm her daughter, because she knows that an accusation levelled without clear evidence will only backfire. Christine’s eventual suicide proves that her protest has turned out to be a dead end. Felicita herself patiently awaits the opportunity to discredit Benedetta. She happens to spy through a peephole into her former room and thus witnesses amorous activity between Benedetta and Bartolomea. Felicita secretly leaves the convent to inform the Nuncio in Florence (Lambert Wilson) about such carnal pleasures.


Whereas Bartolomea will be expelled from the convent after they have found the evidence – the wooden statue hidden in a book – Benedetta will be condemned to die at the stake for her abomination. While the abbess has the ability to speak with a voice as if she is Christ’s ventriloquist, she calls the verdict blasphemous. But then there is, as critic Paul Attard notes, a crowd-pleasing ending that “reverses The Passion of Joan of Arc into a revenge fantasy.”8 Benedetta will be rescued from the stake when it is exposed, with a little help from a deadly sick Felicita, that the Nuncio is suffering from the bubonic plague, then raging all around. He is chased away by a furious crowd while Felicita voluntarily walks into the fire. Benedetta prophesies that the plague will not harm Pescia if the people support her, and indeed it won’t (as a final text mentions), even though we do not know whether there is a causal relation between Benedetta’s statement and the fate spared Pescia. In an epilogue, Benedetta, far away from the convent, is reunited with Bartolomea, the two of them naked. Bartolomea continues to have doubts about Benedetta’s mystical contact with Jesus, while Benedetta seems as self-assured as ever.

Benedetta has its political motives, but they never become more than a significant intermezzo, which is perhaps the main reason why The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called Verhoeven’s film a “very PG-ified version” of The Devils.9 The political conflict in the second half of Verhoeven’s film lacks the sharpness of what we find in The Devils, since it continues to be overshadowed by Benedetta’s personal needs and concerns. While the emphasis is on whether her hallucinations are fraudulent or the signs of a mystic bond, the viewer is made partially blind to the workings of vile political mechanisms. And because the political dimension is subordinated to erotic fantasies, Verhoeven’s film is, in the end, much less contestable than a film such as The Devils in which this hierarchy is reversed: in Russell’s film, a political tone comes to predominate over the scenes of nudity and eros.


Bad Omen

It is perhaps not a good sign for Verhoeven, who has always liked to work at the cutting edge, that hardly any of the critics have really been appalled by Benedetta. Even those reviewers who lack enthusiasm for the picture are not very harsh in their criticism. It has become part of Verhoeven’s profile that one can not only always give good arguments why his films are tawdry but can in equal measure advance good arguments for why his pictures push conventions to the edge, thus inviting viewers to reflect upon a variety of recurring obsessions. In the universe of Verhoeven, sex can be a liberating force but can also be used to further aims that are cunning and cynical; religion can open up to the fantastic, but the most dedicated believers usually exploit it for self-serving ends. Verhoeven is at its most controversial when he overdoes the downside. When he shoots a fully loaded action scene, as filmmakers often do for amusement, he will emphasize the nasty consequences of violence, e.g. by showing wounds in graphic detail and usually for a few seconds more than customary. If someone protests that his scenes of sex and violence are a bit too much, his standard reply is: “But this is what happens in real life, isn’t it?” For the sort of viewer who judges movies according to conventions, his cinema can be distasteful at times, but other viewers will defend his work by claiming that the excess of conventions constitutes the indelible charm of Verhoeven’s cinema because such excess invites viewers to adopt satirical readings. One can say, as a rule, that the less diverse and extreme the reactions to his films, the less captivating a given picture will be in the long run. In that regard, it is a bad omen for Benedetta that, apart from some usual suspects (conservative Catholics), viewers were entertained by Verhoeven’s latest film rather than enraged at his nun opus.


  1. Hugh Montgomery, “How Showgirls Exposed the Rot of Our Misogynist Culture,” BBC Culture, 15 July 2020.
  2. These two films were also discussed by Dan Shaw in Senses of Cinema, Issue 24 (January 2003). See, for a longer analysis of De vierde man, Peter Verstraten, Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-War Fiction Film (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), pp. 317-323; and for a longer analysis of Flesh+Blood, Verstraten, Dutch Post-War Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), pp. 415-420.
  3. In an article in World Today News, Verhoeven is quoted: “I was drawn to the boldness and uniqueness of this story, to the mix between Christianity and lesbian sexuality. The character interested me, with the question of knowing if you can manipulate people without realizing that you are manipulating them.” World Today News, “Banned in Russia, the Film Benedetta Arouses the Ire of Ultra-Conservative Catholics in New York,” (27 September 2021).
  4. Ik lieg de waarheid… net zolang tot ik het zelf geloof.”
  5. Jordan Mintzer, “Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta: Film Review | Cannes 2021,” The Hollywood Reporter (9 July 2021).
  6. See for a good analysis of Russell’s film, Christophe Van Eecke, “Staging the World: The Devils as Theatrum Mundi,” Journal of British Cinema and Television, Volume 12, Issue 4 (2015): pp. 496-514.
  7. Ken Russell. A British Picture: An Autobiography, 2nd edition (London: Southbank, 2008), p. 193.
  8. The Passion of Joan of Arc refers to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film La passion de Jean d’Arc (1928). Paul Attard, “Benedetta | Paul Verhoeven,” In Review (29 September 2021).
  9. Peter Bradshaw, “Benedetta Review – Verhoeven’s Saucy Nun Romance Goes Out with a Wimple,” The Guardian (9 July 2021).

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is an Assistant Professor in Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He is an author of among others Film Narratology, Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film and its “sequel” Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis.

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