Nuns-ploitation! It’s billed as a sensitive portrait of a lesbian who struggles against sexual constraints of 17th Century nunnery life. But is new ‘wimples and nipples’ film Benedetta just a cynical exercise, asks CAROLINE GRAHAM
Thirty seconds into the trailer for the new film Benedetta, a young novice nun takes a shower, her modesty ‘protected’ by only the flimsiest of transparent gauze curtains.
As the film’s lead character enters – in habit and wimple – the young nun ‘slips’, causing Benedetta to instinctively reach out, almost touching the novice’s naked breast before recoiling in pious shame.
The ‘teaser’ for what has already been dubbed ‘the most controversial movie of the year’ is less than two minutes long, yet manages to contain scenes of lesbian sex, self-flagellation, nun- on-nun kissing and even a fleeting ‘nipple shot’.
Even the trailer has caused consternation and cinemas are braced for protests.
Yet the movie will take centre-stage at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, an event being hyped as ‘the reintroduction of Hollywood red carpet glamour’ to fans after the global pandemic stopped movie-going and cost the film industry billions in lost revenue.
The ‘teaser’ for Benedetta, which has been dubbed ‘most controversial movie of the year’ contains scenes of lesbian sex and self-flagellation. Pictured: Virginie Eifra and Daphene Patakia as Benedetta and Bartolomea
Last night, a producer who works for one of the biggest studios in Hollywood said: ‘Benedetta is competing for the Grand Prize at Cannes and it will have its world premiere there. It’s the centrepiece of the festival.
‘Sure it’s controversial but sex sells. At this point the studios have to get people back into movie theatres. It’s a matter of survival. What better than a bit of titillating nunsploitation?’
British actress Charlotte Rampling, 75, herself no stranger to scandal (she recently admitted to a menage-a-trois during the Swinging Sixties) plays an abbess who is outraged by the ‘sexual deviancy’ taking place within the convent.
And it should come as no surprise that the man behind the camera is risque director Paul Verhoeven, who broke the ‘barrier of decency’ in mainstream movies back in 1992 with the notorious leg-crossing scene in Basic Instinct.
Sharon Stone recently said she was duped by Verhoeven into removing her knickers in the erotic thriller – he told her the white underwear she had been wearing was ‘reflecting’ in the camera and ruining his shot.
She insists Verhoeven promised her modesty would be protected. Instead, when she watched Basic Instinct for the first time, she was so horrified by the below-the-belt exposure that she slapped Verhoeven across the face.
The 82-year-old director has strongly denied her claims that he ‘conned’ her, saying: ‘Sharon is lying. Any actress knows what she’s going to see if you ask her to take off her underwear and point there with the camera.’
Dutch-born Verhoeven is a complicated figure. Hailed by some as a visionary and ‘grand auteur’, to others he is a shameless exploiter of sex, violence and depravity – all in the name of art.
Charlotte Rampling (pictured), 75, herself no stranger to scandal (she recently admitted to a menage-a-trois) plays an abbess who is outraged by the ‘sexual deviancy’ in the convent
One Hollywood PR told The Mail on Sunday: ‘You only have to look at the trailer for Benedetta. There’s a graphic sex scene, nudity, flogging, titillation. This is Basic Instinct with wimples and crucifixes.’
Verhoeven, however, insists his latest movie is ’empowering’ to women. He lauds Benedetta as an apt heroine for the #MeToo generation because she is a woman who embraced her sexuality at a time when being a lesbian could result in a woman being burned at the stake.
A source who has worked with the director said: ‘Paul’s a genius. This is his magnum opus. People are quick to criticise him but his films have layer upon layer and they are hugely entertaining.
‘Sure, people remember Basic Instinct because of the nudity but you can watch that film today and it still holds up as a great piece of film-making nearly three decades later. He is an auteur who takes risks and pushes the envelope. That’s what all great artists do.’
Verhoeven’s last film, Elle, released in 2016, was about a businesswoman who plays a psychological game of cat-and-mouse with the man who brutally raped her. The critics loved it and it earned an Oscar nomination for lead actress Isabelle Huppert.
But who can forget 1995’s Showgirls, a film about strippers which critics panned as ‘sordid’, ‘laughable’ and ‘high-gloss trash’.
However,Verhoeven’s blockbuster combination of graphic sex and gore has had the tills ringing. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in his 1990 dystopian sci-fi drama Total Recall, which is packed with bloodshed and violence.
An earlier 1987 hit, RoboCop, used a record 200 ‘squibs’ of blood for a scene in which an actor was blown to bits.
‘Paul has a proven track record for producing box-office hits, albeit full of gore or graphic sex,’ said one actor who worked with him.
‘He pushes boundaries and gets people talking and that gets people to go to the cinema. He’s what the studios need right now.’
A senior executive with a major Hollywood studio told The Mail on Sunday that films such as Benedetta were vital to revive an industry that’s ‘dead on its feet’.
‘Hollywood studios are in dire trouble. The pandemic killed the movie theatres and people have got used to seeing new releases on streaming services in the comfort of their own home.
‘It has cost the industry billions and continues to do so.
‘We need to get people back into cinemas in order to survive. We know there are certain movies, Marvel comic book heroes, for example, which will get younger audiences back in. But we need to appeal to a wider demographic. Films like Benedetta could save Hollywood.
‘The next 12 months will be make-or-break for Hollywood and that’s why films like this are vital for our survival. We need to reintroduce the magic of going to the movies.’
Benedetta will take centre-stage at Cannes Film Festival, which is hyped as ‘the reintroduction of Hollywood glamour’ after Covid-19. Pictured: Lambert Wilson as The Nuncio in Benedetta
Benedetta, which the octogenarian director calls his masterpiece, is based on a true story about an abbess in Renaissance Italy who had a lesbian fling within her convent while experiencing ‘godly visions’ and being hailed a saint.
Shameless provocateur he may well be, but Verhoeven’s new film plunders a scholarly tome. Historian Professor Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy was published in 1986.
The story of Benedetta had attained mythical status in Italy and was passed down through generations but Prof Brown gave the story academic credibility by unearthing new documents in the state archives in Florence, which confirmed the authenticity of the story.
Born in 1591, Benedetta Carlini grew up in a respectable middle-class Italian family and entered The Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, Tuscany, at the age of nine.
At the time in Renaissance Italy, middle-class families often ‘bought’ their daughters a place at a convent as it was a quarter of the cost of a marriage dowry and conferred respectability. Benedetta was made abbess of the convent at 30.
She reported ‘visions’ which came to her, including one in which Jesus asked to take her as his wife.
Other visions were more graphic and sexual. She would ‘speak’ in the voices of angels and underwent a mock marriage ceremony at the convent where only she could ‘see’ Jesus, her new husband.
She became a sensation with people flocking to see her and once showed stigmata on her hands –bleeding wounds similar to the ones the Bible says Christ suffered during the Crucifixion.
The other nuns were so concerned by her increasingly disturbing claims that they reported her actions to the papal council in Rome and were ordered to confine Sister Benedetta to her room.
A young novice nun, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli, was assigned to watch over her. However, the pair embarked on a lesbian affair which ended when Bartolomea told another nun about their illicit romance.
Later, at a papal inquiry, Bartolomea gave graphic testimony about how Benedetta engaged in sex acts with her while possessed by the spirit of a ‘male demon’ called Splenditello.
Papal authorities determined Benedetta’s revelations were the work of the Devil, not God; ‘a diabolical obsession’. They stripped her of her rank and she was in the convent’s ‘prison’ for the remaining 35 years of her life. She died in 1661.
In Verhoeven’s movie, the title role is played by Belgian actress and former television presenter Virginie Efira. Her lover is portrayed by Daphne Patakia, another unknown Belgian starlet. Both women are set to become stars thanks to their erotic on-screen lovemaking.
Rampling, who has lived in France for decades, has herself been accused of exploiting sex in the name of art. In the 1974 arthouse film The Night Porter, she played a concentration camp survivor called Lucia who embarks a sadomasochistic relationship with an ex-Nazi SS officer now working as a porter at a Vienna hotel.
Nunsploitation is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Verhoeven’s film follows in a long tradition of Hollywood using forbidden lust in the cloisters to titillate audiences.
In The Sound Of Music, Julie Andrews’s virginal Maria turns her back on the abbey after falling for Captain Von Trapp.
There were a series of B-movies in the 1970s with titles such as Sister Lucia’s Dishonour, Nude Nuns With Big Guns, and The Sinful Nuns Of Saint Valentine.
In the trailer, as the lead character enters, in habit and wimple, the nun ‘slips’, causing Benedetta to reach out, almost touching the novice’s naked breast before recoiling
Last year’s surprise BBC hit Black Narcissus – about an Anglican nun setting up a branch of her order in the Himalayas – starred Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh and marked one of Dame Diana Rigg’s final performances as strict Mother Dorothea.
A source said: ‘There was a whole nunsploitation sub-genre in European movies in the 1970s. It developed a cult following. These films are fetishised images of naughty nuns, whose devotion to God is challenged by the weak desires of their own flesh.’
The source added: ‘There’s often an evil Mother Superior involved which adds to the drama and titillation factor. That’s what you’ve got in Verhoeven’s film. It’s all very entertaining and naughty.’
Verhoeven has said his movies are influenced by his own childhood growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland, where he witnessed brutality and victimisation.
Film-makers are expecting a backlash from religious organisations when Benedetta opens.
A source said: ‘There has already been outrage on social media about the trailer. We fully expect Catholic groups and others to be up in arms about the depiction of the Church in this. But it won’t be the first time religious groups have taken against Hollywood.’
Festival organisers are said to be prepared for protests when the red carpet is rolled out for the film’s world premiere on July 9.
But as the source put it: ‘If it gets people into cinemas and away from streaming services like Netflix then Verhoeven will be a hero and he’ll get Oscar nominations.
‘If the film flops, the studios will move on. Whether it’s art or not is another story.
‘Frankly, no one in Hollywood much cares at the moment.’
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