Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta Exploits Queerness for Shock Value

Benedetta, a 2021 film co-written and directed by Paul Verhoeven, tells the story of a nun who sees visions of Christ and is headed for sainthood — that is, until a same-sex affair is revealed between her and another young nun. The movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received positive reviews for its explicit sex scenes.

Paul Verhoeven is protected by his manhood and his straightness. He does not feel the shame that comes along with women’s sexuality or queerness. He is able to show those themes on screen while being protected by the shield of his privilege. He has not been taught that his sexuality should be a hidden thing, one that bears shame.  

The first time I was aware of my sexuality as a girl was when I wanted to buy a button-down shirt that had buttoned pockets on both sides of the chest. My mother pointed out to me that the buttons might look like nipples, and told me I’d be inviting unwanted attention. Later, I was advised to not send nude photos in case someone kept them and released them later. If the world could see my body, if my sexuality wasn’t reserved for whoever had “won” me and kept quiet, I would be branded and my life could be ruined. 

In high school, I had started to accept my queer identity and wanted to wear a suit to prom, but my mother made me buy a dress , though she did eventually let me wear the suit. I learned from these experiences that my sexuality was supposed to be private and I was putting myself in great danger if I exposed myself in any way. I don’t have the luxury of watching the queerness in the film while being removed from it in the way straight people do. 

There is no shortage of queer filmmakers trying to make it these days. There are only prejudices and biases that prevent them from succeeding. Queer filmmakers are told not to make their work all about their queerness and are criticized for throwing their sexuality in the viewer’s face. Yet when straight people like Verhoeven tell queer stories, they are praised.

There are three types of viewers of Benedetta. The first and most common is the heterosexual man or woman, who can watch with perverse curiosity. While the woman may have experienced the inherent shame that is taught with women’s sexuality, she is still removed from the experience of lesbianism, the label that adds the final layer to the shock factor of the film. For this group, the film is a circus where Verhoeven serves as the ringmaster. He is detached and in control, letting the viewers delight in the thrill of the voyeurism of the film while remaining safe in their socially acceptable lifestyles. 

Similar to the first category of viewers is the queer male. Queer men possess a position of power as men, not taught that their manhood and sexuality is the ultimate shame. In the way that straight viewers can remain detached from the queerness, men can remain detached from the experience of female sexuality. As someone socialized as a woman, I have been taught that my sexuality should be hidden, so I did feel a sense of shame watching the way Benedetta and her lover, Bartolomea, indulge in pleasure. The final conflict centers around a statue of the Virgin Mary, carved by Bartolomea into a dildo. She presents it as a gift to Benedetta and they delight in using it on each other, before the nuncio, a powerful local representative of the Pope, condemns them. While the acts of pleasure are used for shock value in the film, Verhoeven uses the tone of the film to give the viewer reassurance that the queerness is not a sin, at least in the eyes of the God in the movie. 

The third type of viewer is the queer woman. While the film does not present the sex scenes in their crudest form, it is the Hollywood “aesthetic” lesbian porn that has become typical of big box lesbian-centered films. Both the women are skinny, white, and feminine; the sex is choreographed and sensual. Anyone who’s experienced sex, regardless of sexuality, knows that sex is not sensual and choreographed — it can be awkward, challenging, and sometimes not even sexy! When the only exposure we have to lesbian sex is highly choreographed and full of mood lighting, how are we supposed to know that sex is not always like that? How do we develop realistic expectations for ourselves and our partners? 

Perhaps a fourth category should be included: the former or current Catholic. The Catholic League, a Catholic news journal, criticized the film’s homosexuality in a religious setting and its success at the Cannes Film Festival. The film does use the context and stylization of a typical Bible story to frame the narrative, though there are some notable differences. 

I grew up watching Bible story films, where the visions that Moses and the apostles see are shown as if they are really happening — complete with the characters being transported to another place and Jesus or angels appearing. The visions Benedetta experiences are also shown as she is presumably seeing them: Jesus appearing in front of her as a shepherd with sheep on a hill, her feet hitting the ground made of dirt and grass as she runs toward him — even though she is seeing these visions while laying on a table in the church play. 

However, the film differs from the traditional Bible story film in tone. In this scene, the characters around her stare awkwardly, not in awe, and others show disbelief when she reveals her visions to them. While the church teaches that things happened how God intended them, this movie demonstrates human fallibility and the decision-making by those in power that molds history. Those in power are clearly human; the village priest, the head of the convent, and the nuncio are shown as multi-dimensional people, despite their positions as antagonists. They are allowed to be wrong, and the movie portrays their shock over the actions of Benedetta and Bartolomea. Despite Verhoeven’s flawed usage of sexuality, this is one area in which where the movie shines and satisfies the queer woman(ish) viewer — our “ringmaster” has condemned religious bigotry and given our queer characters vindication. 

Ironically, the film highlights the homosexual acts as a source of shock for the audience. Are those who are shocked at the association between homosexuality and religion the villains? Perhaps we are all to blame for indulging in the shock factors Verhoeven so clearly wants to highlight.