When novice nun Benedetta (Virginie Efira) experiences visions of Christ that progress to showing signs of stigmata, she is made Abbess of her convent, with her secret lover Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) at her side. However, the former Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) and her daughter grow suspicious of Benedetta’s stigmata as well as her relationship with Bartolomea. When Felicita goes to the Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) with her knowledge of Benedetta’s sexuality, Benedetta faces being burnt alive at the stake.

With this film, Verhoeven once again proves that his ability to shock hasn’t deserted him. From graphic sex scenes between Benedetta and Bartolomea to self-flagellation and visions of Christ decapitating a soldier, he ensures that his specific visceral vision is applied to the narrative. Of course, he executes such sequences with the characteristic style that made his Hollywood films (RoboCop, Basic Instinct) so unique and appealing, with Benedetta’s visions of Christ the avenger resembling his renowned ultra-violent action sequences. In addition, the sex between Benedetta and Bartolomea goes beyond American cultural restrictions in its detail, showing exactly why the Church would consider their relationship sinful, with the use of a dildo in the shape of the Virgin Mary and cunnilingus in particular standing out.

However, Verhoeven excels in not only depicting violent and sexual transgression, but also the hypocrisy and misogyny of the Catholic church, with the opening scenes showing the mercenary nature of Felicita as she haggles over the price of admitting Benedetta to the convent. The involvement of the Nuncio in the investigation of Benedetta not only highlights the indifference of the church towards its plague-stricken populace, but also the willingness to punish any woman who dares to go against what is deemed acceptable. This latter aspect can be seen in the Nuncio’s determination to not only see Benedetta burned at the stake but also have Bart0lomea brutally tortured despite her confession that she is in a relationship with Benedetta.

Despite Verhoeven’s criticisms of the Church, he keeps Benedetta’s true nature ambiguous, with evidence that she faked her stigmata sitting alongside her visions and speaking in an unknown voice. This latter aspect raises even more questions, as the voice is electronically altered to sound deeper, making it sound more demonic and blurring its identity – would the voice of God or Jesus really sound like that? This ambiguity helps to lift the film above being a grounded historical biopic and adds a degree of mysticism that provides another layer to the narrative.

Benedetta once again shows that Verhoeven is a master of his craft, merging the historical with the spiritual along with his own unflinching style to create a unique look at the misogyny and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church through the story of one woman.

In cinemas now