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Benedetta is destined to be controversial. I just don't know which part of it will be the most controversial. Will it be the same-sex love scenes between nuns? One character's borderline erotic fantasy about Jesus on the cross? The fantasy sequences in which Christ is depicted as an action hero who mercilessly slices up bad guys with a sword? A girl sucking on the breast of a Virgin Mary statue? The nun passing gas? Whatever the most outrage-inducing part turns out to be, it's safe to say that pearls will be clutched in mass quantities. Director Paul Verhoeven, the auteur behind Basic Instinct and Showgirls, would have it no other way.

Loosely based on a true story, the film is set during the 17th century. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has lived in a convent in Tuscany ever since she was a child. She was involved in what may have been a miracle soon after arriving, when a falling statue somehow failed to crush her. As a young woman, Benedetta begins having bizarre religious dreams. In one, she presses her body up against Christ's as he's being crucified. After waking up from that, she develops the stigmata. Some in the convent feel God is choosing her to have a more prominent role, but the Abbass (Charlotte Rampling) isn't keen on potentially having her power usurped.

Then there's the matter of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a new arrival. She makes advances toward Benedetta that lead to copious amounts of nudity, multiple orgasms, and a sex act with a small figure of the Virgin Mary. Benedetta swirls their carnal relationship together with the issue of whether the title character has been selected by God, creating a psychosexual drama about the struggle for control and status within the church. Of course, the church has always had firm rules created by those who have been “called,” based on human interpretation of the Bible and/or God's intent. This particular nun shakes that entire concept up. Is she a sinner for violating the oath of chastity, or a saint who has received divine visions?

Benedetta's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. Verhoeven – never one to shy away from provocation – fills his movie with so much outrageously controversial material that it isn't boring for a single second of its 131-minute running time. That's because, in part, the director is clearly having fun knocking you off balance. The scandalous sequences have a dark streak of humor running through them. He knows that being uncensored is necessary to fully hit the themes this story wants to address, and he's glad to deliver.

At the same time, the gleefully naughty nature of those scenes clashes somewhat with the more somber “regular” scenes designed to show the hierarchy within the convent. What you get is a movie that sometimes feels like a serious religious drama and other times like the work of an enfant terrible intent on slaughtering sacred cows. Would the picture be better served under the guidance of a director who could bring those two halves in line more? Perhaps, but then again, who other than Paul Verhoeven would ever dare to touch this material?

Even if not wholly cohesive, Benedetta works because it does have something valid to say about the church's attitudes toward sexuality, as well as what can be the cutthroat nature of its leadership. Efira gives a fearless performance in the title role, keeping us guessing about whether Benedetta is mentally ill or truly in receipt of holy communications. Rampling, meanwhile, is solid as always, capturing the cruelly pious nature of the Abbass, who may be more invested in preserving her influence than in protecting the sanctity of the women she oversees. Their performances combine with the inherently attention-getting approach to keep adventurous viewers hooked.

Is Benedetta blasphemous? Depends on how you look at it, I guess. I'd be hard-pressed to identify any single element that feels specifically designed to belittle God or Jesus. In fact, faith is taken quite seriously. The film is, however, extremely hard on the Catholic Church, depicting it as a rigid, hypocritical organization structured mostly to protect its own interests. Of course, the church hasn't exactly had a sterling reputation over the centuries. Nothing you'll see here is as appalling as, say, the revelation that it spent decades covering up child molestation by pedophile priests. Still, you need to buckle up before watching this film. There's something here to offend everyone.

out of four

Benedetta is unrated, but contains extensive nudity, graphic sexuality, and strong bloody violence. The running time is 2 hour and 11 minutes.