Paul Verhoeven is one of world cinema’s great provocateurs (the creator of Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and Elle) and yet the most shocking thing about Benedetta – his tale of lesbian nuns in 17th-century Tuscany – is how tame and even tasteful it turns out to be. True, the plot (freely lifted from Judith C Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts) hinges on the appearance of a dildo whittled from a statue of the Virgin Mary – an incident which no doubt led to the film being picketed at the New York film festival and outright banned in Singapore.
For all that, Verhoeven’s handling is more silly than savage, more playful than profane, which ensures that the picture’s cloistered heat never comes to the boil. Virginie Efira plays the novice nun who sparks mass hysteria; Charlotte Rampling the sour Mother Superior who insists that God’s greatest miracles rarely happen in bed. Both appear to be enjoying themselves, rattling merrily through all the stage-managed mischief, the flamboyant high jinks, the showboating satire. At the risk of insulting Benedetta, it’s mostly good, clean, wholesome fun.