Will the Dutch director’s upcoming Blessed Virgin make Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) look like a Sunday school outing?
Fourteen months shy of 80, Paul Verhoeven is determined to remain an enfant terrible. Blessed Virgin, his next film, will tell the story of the “diabolically possessed” 17th-century abbess Benedetta Carlini.
Fresh off the success of his controversial rape revenge drama Elle, Verhoeven is prepping his adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.
Virginie Efira, the Brussels-born actress who appropriately played the devout Catholic wife Rebecca in Elle and a predatory cougar in the comedy It Boy (2013), has been cast as Carlini.
Elle producer Said Ben Said announced the production on Twitter yesterday. The British trade paper Screen Daily confirmed that Paris’s SBS Productions is going ahead with the film.
The screenplay has been written by Verhoeven’s compatriot and longtime collaborator Gerald Soeteman. They teamed on Verhoeven’s first seven features, made between 1971 and 1985—prior to the director’s American sojourn—and 2006’s Black Book.
Verhoeven has freighted his films with so much lurid sex and violence that their intellectual rigor has often been neglected. Though best known for his Hollywood spectacles Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, he has remained at heart a sardonic European auteur. Blessed Virgin will afford him opportunities to utilize the kind of transgressive Christian imagery he wove into 1983’s The 4th Man.
Judith Brown based Immodest Acts on papers she found in the Florence State Archives when researching the Medicis and local economic history.
Born into a middle-class family from the Appenine Mountains region, Carlini (1591–1661) coveted power. By the young age of 30, she had been appointed the abbess of the Convent of the Mother God in Pescia, Tuscany. Between 1619 and 1623, she was the subject of a series of inquests to establish if she were a genuine mystic or issued her revelations under the Devil’s guidance.
Affecting the appearance of a handsome young man, Carlini claimed she was possessed by a beautiful male demon or angel, Splenditello. She was charged with marrying Christ before the assembled convent, an episode in which Jesus spoke through her during the ceremony and proclaimed her greatness; inflicting stigmata on herself; and conducting an erotic affair with a younger nun, Bartolomeo Crivelli.
The abbess’s sadomasochistic visions found disfavor at a time when the Catholic church was eradicating superstition, as part of its philosophical and institutional reforms. She spent her last 35 years in the convent’s prison.
There is no news yet who will play Crivelli, who predeceased Carlini by one year. Verhoeven would do well to consider Lola Créton, whose Renaissance madonna face has graced films directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, Olivier Assayas, and Claire Denis.
Blessed Virgin will have to be super-sacrilegious to acquire the reputation of The Devils, Ken Russell’s 1971 shocker about Ursuline nuns who in the 1630s claimed they’d been possessed by demons in Loudon, France. Verhoeven is clearly up to the task.