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Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta

Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun film under fire for Virgin Mary dildo scene

Benedetta premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to some very much anticipated scandal

Paul Verhoeven’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2016 thriller Elle premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival over the weekend and has since caused uproar online for its depiction of sexually charged nuns.

Inspired by true events, the thriller focuses on an erotic lesbian affair between nuns in 17th century Italy as plague ravages the land. One particular scene shows a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary being used as a sex toy.

While the film has received mostly positive reviews, some critics have labelled its depictions of eroticism as “blasphemous”.

Indiewire stated the film is a “generally blasphemous” or “perhaps just humanistic” “attitude toward the dogmas of the Catholic Church”, while Variety said Benedetta “intends to offend” and suggested Verhoeven chose to tell the story of the nun lovers for its “kink”.

Responding to these comments, the Basic Instinct and Showgirls director told reporters at Cannes that such criticisms are “stupid”.

“I don’t understand really how you can be blasphemous about something that happened,” Verhoeven said. “Even if it’s in 1625, it’s true, mostly. Of course, we changed a little bit.”

”You cannot talk about blasphemy about something that happened 4,500 years ago. I think that’s wrong,” he added. “So I think the word blasphemy, in this case, is stupid.”

Benedetta is based on a true story told in the 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown. Speaking to Screen Daily, Verhoeven said: “The book is about a lesbian… a nun who becomes a lesbian. That is what happens. It is the real story. I have not invented it.”

“That’s what was written down in 1625. Of course, they went to bed. They went to bed all the time! At the trial, they asked, ‘How many times did you have sex?’. Three times a week (was the answer). How many times did you kiss her genitals? The kiss, of course, was a lick. Twenty times (was the answer).”

The 82-year-old director did, however, take liberties with the Virgin Mary dildo. “I discovered that in 1625, women who had sex with each other, unlike 100 years earlier, would be punished severely but they would not be burned,” he explained.

”But I felt that I wanted a narrative that would include, at the last moment, a revolution – that people would go on the side of Benedetta against the Nuncio… I found that in 1625, women would not be burned any more unless they used an instrument.”

Besides its Cannes premiere, the film is scheduled to receive a theatrical release in France on July 9. A release date for the UK and the US is yet to be announced.

Elsewhere, Verhoeven is working on a French-language TV series based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 Bel Ami novel about a corrupt journalist in Paris who rises to power by manipulating a series of wealthy and poweful women.