Streaming: Benedetta and the best films about nuns

Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nuns romance joins a heavenly sisterhood that ranges from Black Narcissus and Doubt to Viridiana

If joining a nunnery was half as exciting as many films make it look, surely more women would do so. On screen, the humble nun has been granted a level of alluring mystique and occasional glamour by the movies that doesn’t appear to match up with real life.

Sisters do it sexily for themselves in Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s wonderfully hot-and-bothered arthouse riff on the old nunsploitation genre – now streaming on Mubi as part of a mini-season dedicated to that very bracket of cinema. Mubi’s selections veer toward the classier end of the nunsploitation spectrum (you’ll have to search elsewhere on the internet for, say, Nude Nuns with Big Guns). Among them is the 1961 Polish provocation Mother Joan of the Angels, an austere, rather powerful version of the oft-recycled demonic-possession-at-the-convent story.

It seems positively pious next to Benedetta’s ripe, raucous, only notionally fact-based story of a 17th-century Italian nun’s scandalous lesbian affair with a fellow sister – tricked out as it is with fire, serpents and nuns in full makeup. But there’s interesting theological detail and conflict too, embodied in Charlotte Rampling’s magnificently dry Mother Superior. (It would make a fine double bill with Ken Russell’s convent-meltdown freakout The Devils, if only that were available to stream on any UK platform.)

There’s some shared DNA between Benedetta and Powell and Pressburger’s ravishing, colour-saturated Black Narcissus (BritBox), an exploration of sexual yearnings among brides of Christ that launched scores of less artful films on the same subject. In 1947 the film came as a jolt to people’s sensibilities – naturally it was condemned as “an affront to religion” by the Catholic Legion of Decency – and still it retains a nervy potency that far outstrips the flatter recent TV remake.

Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947)
‘Unseemly exploits’: Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947). Allstar Photograph: Universal Pictures/Allstar

Old Hollywood kept its nuns more wholesome: having overseen the unseemly exploits of Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr kept her wimple on in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (Amazon Prime), a charming romantic comedy of sorts in which Robert Mitchum’s shipwrecked marine vies with God for the affections of Kerr’s chaste novice – suffice it to say the Legion of Decency approved this time. Moving away from the chic gamine iconography on which her legacy has been built, Audrey Hepburn gave perhaps her richest dramatic performance in The Nun’s Story (Apple TV), a sensitive and involving investigation of a young woman caught between the isolation of the convent and the tragedies of the outside world.

Offered the choice between nunly duty and the pull of showtunes and marriage to Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music (Disney+), Julie Andrews’s irrepressibly perky Maria didn’t wrestle nearly so long. In the ranks of cinema’s least committed nuns, she’s perhaps outranked only by Whoopi Goldberg’s fabulous Vegas impostor Dolores van Cartier, loosening up Maggie Smith’s thin-lipped Mother Superior in Sister Act (Prime), or Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane’s habit-donning gangsters in Nuns on the Run (Apple TV) – the early 90s was a surprisingly fruitful era for the criminal-hideout-in-a-convent subgenre.

Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Najimy in Sister Act (1992).
Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Najimy in Sister Act (1992). Touchstone/Allstar Photograph: Touchstone/Allstar

More recently, John Patrick Shanley’s all-star Doubt (2008; Prime) attempted to restore some respectability to the convents of Hollywood, though Meryl Streep’s gorgon-like reverend mother is essentially a high-camp creation. I found more nuance and power in Melissa Leo’s comparable portrayal of a cruelly conservative abbess battling the new Catholic schemata of the 1960s in Maggie Betts’s superb, underseen Novitiate (2017; Prime).

But it’s world cinema that has given us some of cinema’s most challenging nun studies, from Luis Buñuel’s viscerally upsetting Viridiana (1961; Filmbox), with its young novice torn from her calling by familial abuse, to Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s rigorous, scabrously critical Beyond the Hills (2012; BFI Player), which pits young women’s faith and desire against unforgiving Eastern Orthodox patriarchy. By the time you get to The Innocents (Chili), Luxembourger director Anne Fontaine’s quietly searing 2016 account of Polish Catholic nuns raped by Soviet second world war soldiers and bearing the consequences, the life of the nun doesn’t look so glossed-up by the movies after all.

Also new to streaming this week

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Lionsgate) Essentially a work of extreme fan service for the cult of Nicolas Cage, this heavily meta Hollywood satire stars the eccentric actor as himself, entangled in a CIA mission that effectively requires him to, well, play himself. It’s a nifty idea, with Cage a great sport, though the referential jokiness of it all can’t avoid smugness.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
‘Heavily meta’: Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Lionsgate Photograph: Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

Aloners (Mubi) This bittersweet South Korean gem popped up on the festival circuit last year, but didn’t get the attention it deserved. A humanely observed, sometimes piercingly funny character study of an introverted call-centre worker gradually opening up her solitary, carefully maintained life, it promises great things from first-time writer-director Hong Sung-eun.

Operation Mincemeat (Warner Bros) Well made and well acted in a comfortingly staid British way, director John Madden’s adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s account of the famously far-fetched second world war disinformation mission of the title is one of those war films that rarely leaves the strategy room. It’s gripping enough, though the story’s farcical potential, now being exploited in a London stage musical, goes untouched here.

Sci-Fi July (All 4) Film4’s month-long festival of science fiction cinema can be consumed in your own time on the free All 4 platform, with more than 50 selections running the gamut from starry blockbusters (Ad Astra, Minority Report) to auteur darlings (Under the Skin, Scanners) to relatively low-profile discoveries such as independent US director Noah Hutton’s fantastical gig-economy critique Lapsis.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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