Veteran film provocateur Paul Verhoeven hit back on Saturday at Catholics who have condemned his lesbian nun film Benedetta as blasphemous over scenes in which a statue of the Virgin Mary is used as a sex toy. The Basic Instinct and Showgirls director, who has also long drawn the ire of feminists, told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that he had nothing to be ashamed of. “How you can you be blasphemous about something that happened, that is true?” asked the 82-year-old, speaking to reporters in response to social media outrage over the illicit relationship at the heart of the film between a 17th-century Italian abbess and one of her novices. “You cannot talk about blasphemy about something that happened four hundred years ago. I think that is wrong,” he added. The big-budget film, which delights in its rather obvious eroticism, is in the running for Cannes top prize, the Palme d’Or. Belgian star Virginie Efira – who also featured in Verhoeven’s Oscar-nominated Elle about a woman’s rape fantasies – plays the errant abbess Benedetta Carlini, who is stripped of her authority (and just about everything else) when her passion for a fellow nun is revealed. While many critics panned the film, with Britain’s The Guardian newspaper saying that “Verhoeven may have to do some contrite murmuring in the confessional for this one”, the BBC proclaimed it a “searing exploration of faith and organised religion” as it anointed it with five stars. The film industry magazine Variety took a middle path, deeming it a “guilty-pleasure nunsploitation” flick. Verhoeven adapted the film from an acclaimed non-fiction book by Judith C Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Ital y. The director, who has previously denied there was such a thing as a “male gaze”, even claimed that his film could be seen as feminist, an assertion backed by one of his actresses, Louise Chevillotte. “From the moment you let women have complex characters that are so violent and so subversive, yes, there is feminism,” she said.