Benedetta: sapphism and Christianity in the 17th century

Picture of the movie Benedetta © Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions


Five years after Elle, the iconic director who brought us RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997) is back in Competition with Benedetta, in which Virginie Efira plays a charismatic and sensual lesbian nun in 17th-century Italy. A dash of erotic charm in Selection from Paul Verhoeven.

Precious few archive documents detail lesbian relationships blossoming behind the walls of a 17th-century Italian convent. The story of Sister Benedetta was enough to spark the urge in the director of Basic Instinct (1992), having read about it in Judith C. Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Paul Verhoeven shines a light on the fate of this influential woman who went from respect to trial, examining delicate themes such as religion, sexuality, and political intrigue within the Church along the way, all leitmotifs he holds dear and explored in partnership with American screenwriter David Birke.

In the authentic source material discovered in Florence, the trial report was brimming with sexual details offered up by Benedetta's lover, Sister Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), to the extent that the shocked court clerk's handwriting changed.

Benedetta lived in a man's world. She was a talented visionary ahead of her time, as manipulative as she was creative, and wielded significant power at the Theatine convent in Pescia, her hometown in Tuscany. Paul Verhoeven chose Virginie Efira to take on this role, won over by her performance in Elle, which was in Selection in 2016 and starred Isabelle Huppert. The cast also includes Lambert Wilson as the nuncio, and Charlotte Rampling as the abbess Sister Felicita, with the actor also starring in François Ozon's Tout s’est bien passé (Everything Went Fine), another film in Competition this year. 

The actors are filmed in candlelight in a tribute to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, although with a little help from digital technology, a single tallow candle was all it took to create this film's unsettling atmosphere.