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A novitiate nun in 17th-century Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions in Benedetta.Courtesy of TIFF

Benedetta

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Paul Verhoeven and David Birke, based on the book by Judith C. Brown

Starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson

Classification R; 131 minutes

Opens Dec. 3 in select theatres including the TIFF Lightbox; available on Apple TV starting Dec. 21

Critic’s Pick

The new historical drama cum erotic thriller Benedetta is, when not focused on the naked flesh of its leading ladies, a movie about miracles.

”Inspired by real events,” and very, very, very loosely adapted from Judith C. Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, director Paul Verhoeven’s new film focuses on the title character (Virginie Efira), a beautiful young nun who rocked the small world of her convent in 17th-century Tuscany. Benedetta’s notoriety largely stems from a series of divine incidents attributed to her time in the abbey, including a dramatic case of stigmata and regular visions from a Lothario-esque Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié).

But the nun is also singled out, both in Verhoeven’s film and in history, for her love affair with a fellow sister, here named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). The many mysterious unknowns of faith and the very real carnal fears of sexuality coalesce into an incendiary uproar once the local papal ambassador (Lambert Wilson) arrives to investigate the goings-on. At stake: The fate of Benedetta’s soul, and the future of the Church.

Yet while Benedetta the woman may have been touched by Heaven or cursed from Hell or neither, Benedetta the film is undoubtedly a miracle.

A quarter-century after Hollywood exiled Verhoeven for the sins of Showgirls (or more accurately, the disappointing box office of Starship Troopers and Hollow Man), Benedetta marks the latest unlikely but not exactly improbable triumph for the Dutch provocateur. Eighty-three years old, and the filmmaker is still enthusiastically peddling his high-low brand of sicko cinema to the rest of the world, this time through the grace of a comically long list of international co-producers and European film funds. God bless him.

Certainly, Benedetta benefits from an easy sell, which might have kept a lazier version of Verhoeven from becoming too ambitious. A lesbian-nun flick from the director of Basic Instinct? The sexploitation-y conceit and multinational appeal (the film takes place in Italy yet is shot in French) guarantees salivatory presales in all the necessary markets. But Verhoeven is not a filmmaker interested in simplicity, and Benedetta’s historical trappings and imposing themes don’t represent some prestige-cinema heel turn, either. As ever, the director is just as invested in salacious shock as he is in itchy profundity.

What does this mean in practice for Benedetta? Well, we get scenes of Charlotte Rampling’s Mother Superior hunting down a wooden dildo shaped like the Virgin Mary, and a nude torture sequence involving devices and costumes inspired by either the Spanish Inquisition or David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers or both. But we also get trenchant observations on the dangers of blind faith and meditations on the depravity of the mortal soul. There is beauty, and there is waste.

Actually, so very much of Benedetta is infused with Verhoeven’s irrepressible brand of bathroom humour: From Benedetta and Bartolomea’s meet-cute on the latrines to an early film bird-poop gag. Nothing here tops the fabulous amount of feces that Verhoeven dumped on Carice van Houten in 2006′s Black Book – the director’s first post-Hollywood outing – but there is no doubt that Benedetta fulfills the barf-bag whims of the forever uninhibited, filthily uncontrollable filmmaker. It is his way of cleaning out the system in order to ask the Big Questions. Before he inevitably drops trou once more.

Which is ultimately the appeal and dividing line for Verhoeven’s work. You either eagerly embrace the salaciousness with a knowing wink and the rip of a fart, or you flee. Think of the gutter-level video game in the background of Elle, or the detachable-limb Jesus hero of RoboCop, or the competitive barely coded romance at the heart of Showgirls. All those elements are echoed, sometimes with a throaty scream, in Benedetta.

Daphne Patakia as Bartolomea and Virginie Efira as Benedetta Carlini in Benedetta.Guy Ferrandis/Courtesy of TIFF

The film’s cast has been well-coached, too. Efira is perfect as a woman convinced that she has the unwavering approval of God or has never required it in the first place, while Patakia plays her weaker, more naive lover with purity and pity. Meanwhile, veterans Lambert and Rampling (the British actress speaking perfect French) also nail each performative cross that Verhoeven hands them. You can practically hear the director’s off-screen chuckles once the actors find themselves in the climax of the story, all heated romance and sacrilegious pronouncements, with a little bit of plague paranoia for good measure.

“No miracle,” Benedetta is told early in the film, “occurs in bed.” God might agree, but Verhoeven is happy to play Devil’s advocate. Blessed be the trouble maker.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.