Inside Film

Repression, erotic longing and sexual liaisons: Why filmmakers are always drawn to nuns

Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun drama ‘Benedetta’, which is due out later this year, follows in a long tradition of exploitation films in which the sexual desires of nuns are put in the spotlight, says Geoffrey Macnab

Thursday 07 May 2020 13:56
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Virginie Efira in Verhoeven’s new movie
Virginie Efira in Verhoeven’s new movie

The teaser poster is typical Paul Verhoeven. A nun is shown in her white habit, the top of her face obscured, but she is wearing lipstick and her garment is loose enough for us to see half a nipple protruding. Benedetta, which is due out later this year, is already being marketed as if it’s Basic Instinct with crucifixes and wimples.

The film is adapted not from some salacious novel but from a book by a respected American academic. Professor Judith C Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, published in 1986, is regarded as a groundbreaking study of one of the few chronicled cases of lesbianism in the Renaissance era.

Benedetta had entered a convent at the age of nine in 1599. In her early twenties, she began to have visions. In these visions, Brown writes, she was “pursued at night by handsome young men who wanted to kill her and who beat her all over with iron chains, swords, sticks and other weapons”. She also saw Jesus, developed stigmata, and was considered as a true mystic. Benedetta (played by Virginie Efira in Verhoeven’s upcoming film) was eventually elected abbess but that was before the ecclesiastical officials discovered her relationship with her special companion, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli, with whom she engaged in “the most immodest acts”.

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