There comes a time in the viewing of any historical film when you start to wonder how the Carry On team would have cast it. The moment came for me in this film when the arrogant and sensualist Papal Nuncio in counter-reformation Italy receives a petition from a Mother Superior while he is having lunch, about an errant nun in her charge. A character who appears to be the Nuncio’s heavily pregnant courtesan then comes in and demonstrates that she is lactating. The nuncio here is Lambert Wilson, although Kenneth Williams would do just as well, with Joan Sims as the saucily up-the-duff attendant.

Paul Verhoeven has given us a bizarre nunsploitation drama, doing for pious young women in wimples what he did for exotic dancers in his cult classic Showgirls. That has enjoyed a critical rehabilitation and perhaps Benedetta will go the same way. It is about the 17th-century mystic Abbess, Benedetta Carlini, who was finally stripped of her authority (and much else) on account of her relationship with a fellow nun. Co-writing the script with David Birke, Verhoeven has taken his story from Judith Brown’s pioneering 1986 study of Benedetta’s gay sexuality and mythology: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.
Virginie Efira gives a slightly headmistressy performance – with or without her habit – as Benedetta, the passionate young nun who claims to see visions of Jesus and get stigmata. Her lover is Bartolomea, played by Daphne Patakia, and the frowningly disapproving, cynical and antisemitic Mother Superior Felicita is played by Charlotte Rampling. She is at first deeply suspicious of her young charge’s visions, but then with dead-eyed cunning begins to see how Benedetta’s miracle would put her convent on the map and benefit her politically.

As ever, Verhoeven has a great love of showing his female leads in a state of softcore nakedness and stages some raunchy lovemaking scenes, one of which is spiced up with a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin. This object turns out to be Exhibit A when Benedetta is finally confronted with her misdemeanours.

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You might call this a very PG-ified version of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) or Walerian Borowczyk’s nunnery-artporn romp Behind Convent Walls (1978) – with a bit of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964). But these films were arguably attempting to give us a more secular psychological perspective on the mass-neurosis involved, and they had more of a sense of humour. Verhoeven just presents us with the raunchiness, using the religiosity as set dressing. There’s an unbearably hammy musical score throughout, and the keynote is period-drama good taste.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some big scenes: Benedetta’s hallucinatory battle with snakes in the church is entertainingly gruesome, and Rampling’s final moment is a showstopper of sorts. But Verhoeven may have to do some contrite murmuring in the confessional for this one.

Benedetta screened at Cannes film festival on 9 July.

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