Racy sex in a convent? Explicit dreams about Jesus Christ? A coming-of-age lesbian love story? Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” featured all that and more, leaving its premiere audience at the Cannes Film Festival searching for words to describe the movie they’d just seen.
But in the end, the French approved. The period drama screened on Friday night at the 74th annual Cannes, where it was showered with a robust five-minute standing ovation.
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The foreign-language movie — loosely adapted from the book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” — stars Belgian actress Virginie Efira as Benedetta Carlini, an 1800s French nun who believes she is possessed by Jesus Christ.
As she grapples with that revelation, she falls in love with her caretaker, a young nun named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Their explicit love affair unravels with racy love scenes reminiscent of “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” and a sex toy that’s carved out of a wooden figure of the Virgin Mary.
There’s also enough violence in “Benedetta” to give “The Passion of the Christ” a run for its money, although it’s unlikely that this movie will play to the same religious crowds that bought tickets to that 2004 blockbuster.
Verhoeven, whose last movie “Elle” played in Cannes in 2016, entered the Palais with a spring in his step, as he cheered back — clapping his hands in enthusiasm — on his way to his seat. When the movie ended, Verhoeven hugged and kissed Efira on the cheeks, as a black mask dangled below his nose.
“There are so many very talented people in the cast and the crew,” he said in brief remarks to the crowd, as he acknowledged both Efira and Patakia.
The Cannes Film Festival began earlier this week, with expanded COVID-19 protocols on the most glamorous red carpet in the world. Spike Lee and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both jurors at this year’s festival, attended the black-tie premiere.
“Benedetta” will be released in the United States by IFC Films.
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