The observation of contrast, between devotion and sin, is the obvious draw for Benedetta and director Paul Verhoeven. His work is often misconstrued and poorly understood until decades later when audiences feel they are better suited to trying his work and finding the real meaning within. Verhoeven’s style for the Robert Heinlen novel adaptation, Starship Troopers, may have flown over the minds of audiences at the time, and it feels his work on Benedetta is doomed to meet the same fate. Not because it can be misconstrued as blind patriotism and colonialism, but because it dares to take a stab at the taboo idea of sin breaching the devout in a religious environment. Nothing is sacred, ergo nothing is forbidden from discussion. Verhoeven pushes the envelope of taste once more.
Fantastic it is to see Verhoeven is still willing to push for something more, some vibrant satisfaction with the outrage, it is a shame Benedetta, as a fleshed-out concept, is not more than its controversy. That sickly blend of sexy thrills and disorienting knocks at modern culture through a view of the past is not as smooth as it should be. Where Verhoeven may fail in bringing out the serialised terrors of a plague-ravaged country, he does do well in the cinematography and artistic style of beautiful Italy. Bright, well-lit and colourised with great tact, it is a shame the storyline is not given the same treatment. It is poor at times, teasing audiences with strong themes and never following them through. The implication that the body is of no value and the religious connotations that can come with that are ill-explored and Verhoeven fails to conjure up that defiant charm that oozed through his other films.
Pathe have taken a risk with this story of not-so-sacred endeavours into the lives of holy women. Verhoeven never avoids the obvious obstacles, the clear binary opposite of holiness being a sin is never built on or expanded beyond its basic provocation. That is where Benedetta may stumble, its provocative tone is stunning and handled well by the experienced director, whose work will definitely rile up a crowd but give them no payoff that is not, at the very least, ambivalent and characteristically shoddy. Virgine Efira is solid as the eponymous character, but much of Benedetta will be bogged down in that exploitative tone Verhoeven has tried and failed to conquer so frequently.
Even with that troubling inability to just about capture the throes of exploitation, Benedetta will work well for the hardcore Verhoeven fan. There are thoroughly entertaining moments to Benedetta, most of which include Rampling. It is just a shame it never amounts to more than a vehicle for condemnation. Wait a few years, and it’ll be revered as one of the greats. Not quite rightly so, but Verhoeven has trooped on as one of the greats not because of public reception, but because of his foreshadowing tact. Benedetta will have to wait a little longer to stake its claim as a fairly strong piece of his filmography if it ever does. Question the longevity, but enjoy the ride while you can.