“Benedetta” (pronounced “bring me”) is a belated sort of “Serial” that follows a true story about a beautiful nun, Lise Savage, from an era when nuns were actually nice, rather than being stereotypes as they remain today.
At age 17, Lise was ostracized by her church as a budding sex kitten, because she told her Holy Mother superior that she knew there was a terrible witchcraft curse on her. Later, she collapsed and died of broken bones, a common possibility for women who were injured by incompetent priests. No one ever took responsibility for what she said she saw in that sickening ceremony when the nuns had their youngest confessor secretly murdered. It may have been the most brutal day in the long life of the order of Opus Dei.
“Benedetta” is filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s fictionalized version of that story, essentially retracing the trail Lise blazed from her parish, to a Catholic university and on to a missionary school for women in Japan and eventually Japan itself, where she lived for 20 years. When she died in 1986 at age 79, she was still considered an “excommunicated” member of Opus Dei.
As in other Verhoeven films like “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” hypermasculinity reigns in the nun’s order. Lise is a sexually repressed young lady who prays her way out of her problems, much like the anonymous young woman who bore “Serial’s” murder mystery entirely for the media. In her well-worn and bitter white cinderblock building, Lise gathers other “nunsense” women and becomes determined to find out what really happened to her.
At the center of this investigation is a witness, Sister Clara, played by Verhoeven’s regular Julianne Moore. The actress in “Basic Instinct” and “Spaceballs” is good here, perhaps too good. She plays a banal nun who exhibits a certain amount of self-knowledge. She knows that she suffers at the hands of her superiors, who don’t seem to care about her personal well-being.
Verhoeven finally gets her story right in the end, showing how badly women are treated by the Vatican and by Opus Dei’s hard-line hierarchy. After all, it seems like women were once supposed to be the teachers of the girls and the superior of the boys. But it isn’t easy to get that message across in about 18 minutes, and it can’t be done in half-hour segments.
No matter how good it is, though, “Benedetta” remains an imperfect film. It’s polished and cinematic, with beautiful period costumes, gorgeous makeup, production design and a few convincing scene transitions. But it never shakes the feel of a well-done TV movie, something that has become annoying as Hollywood has become so guilty of making pretty, soft-core “chick flicks.”
“Benedetta” wasn’t even Verhoeven’s best sex scene to date. The Dutch director and screenwriter Dennis Lehane had their hands full in “Dead Man Down,” with Colin Farrell’s devilish criminal trying to seduce Julianne Moore. It had one of the film’s most memorable, a berserk interrogation scene that even made Ridley Scott feel old.
“Benedetta” is rated R for sexual content, violence, nudity, language and some drug use. 108 minutes.