Convent-set movies occupy a storied place in cinema history—one too vast to attempt summarization in this review. But it’s no matter: Immaculate stands to be a minor entry in both the crowded genre and in Sydney Sweeney’s present ascension to movie stardom. Sweeney produces and recruited Michael Mohan to direct Immaculate after their previous collaborations on TV series Everything Sucks! and erotic-thriller throwback The Voyeurs.

Narratively, Immaculate owes more to Dario Argento’s Suspiria than any nunsploitation picture. The setups are essentially identical: wide-eyed American girl (Sweeney as Sister Cecilia in this case) heads to an all-girls dormitory in Italy. Nefarious plotting by shadowy leaders is unveiled over the course of the narrative.

Both films contain a cold open that sees a young girl attempt escape before meeting her doom. Immaculate’s opening is quite tense, its best sequence. In the aftermath of this chilling intro, the film is content to ease off the brakes, coasting on jump scares and moody imagery for too much of its subsequent narrative. Much will be made of a wild finale, but by the time it comes along it plays as too little, too late. The film is simply not scary enough for long stretches of runtime. 

Like any boarding-school drama, Sweeney’s Sister Cecilia gets through the hardships of being far from home by finding a close friend in Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli from 2022’s Amanda). Whereas Cecilia is pious and devout, the swearing, cigarette-smoking Gwen doesn’t believe and only fled to the convent in a practical move to escape her difficult life. Despite their stark differences––or rather because of them––they quickly become an inseparable duo.

Their friendship is broken up when the virgin Cecilia miraculously gets pregnant. After a questioning and medical examination by a suspecting male convent leadership, Cecilia’s conception is promptly deemed immaculate, like the Virgin Mary before her. This rapid diagnosis raises immediate red flags for viewers. More strange is the entire convent immediately accepting Cecilia as some sort of holy deity sent by God––everyone but the skeptical Sister Gwen. In the similarly-plotted Benedetta––which Immaculate suffers in comparison to––Benedetta’s stigmata claims are stringently challenged by the convent leadership. But Immaculate is ruthlessly plotted, and so we quickly learn why there is a lack of cross-examination. Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield di Renzi) who has been cruel to Cecilia from the start, attacks her and while being carried away screams “It was supposed to be me.” The reveal of a larger conspiracy takes the mystery out of whether this presentation of a virgin birth might be a ruse to mask possible sexual crimes committed by one of the convent men––an element Immaculate would have benefitted from courting. 

Visually, Immaculate is a step up for Mohan. He shoots the expansive, monastery compound with gusto, gliding around the space, accentuating its labyrinthian nature. As with many recent films, everything reads a half shade too dark––like the entire film was shot day-for-night. But the overall scale and filmmaking form is impressive for what is clearly a modestly-budgeted picture.

Mohan wisely plays this narrative mostly straight––this is not a gonzo nunsploitation picture that winks too openly at the camera, at least not until its end. There are well-deployed moments here and there in which a comic line lets Mohan let you know he understands what kind of picture this is. What he’s going for is a difficult maneuver to pull off: playing a narrative straight before proceeding to go off the rails in the finale. It’s something Paul Schrader has been playing with for decades, first in Taxi Driver and recently perfected by First Reformed. Sweeney deserves the credit, in this finale, for her go-for-broke performance as a blood-soaked Cecilia who finds herself guttural screaming more than once. 

Immaculate struggles when stacked against the most obvious comparison of Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski is perhaps the best ever at building and sustaining paranoia, and that feeling in Immaculate mostly plays out via nightmarish music video-esque imagery featuring threatening nuns wearing ominous red masks––Cronenberg-lite. Much of this imagery is left unexplained, feeling empty. At one point Cecilia discovers an elderly nun has two cross scars branded onto her feet soles––Immaculate is filled with this type of religious iconography whose sole purpose is to be both recognizably Christian and creepy. This same issue plagued Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary, whose assortment of pagan imagery never appeared to add to much either. One element that is effective both in narrative function and symbolism involves a crucial item I’ll describe as Chekhov’s Nail Spike. Schrader likes to point out how blood-soaked Christianity is: hymns are sung about salvation being found by being washed in the blood of the lamb. This icon-turned-weapon in Immaculate approaches this same concept in an inspired bit of grindhouse fun.

I’m typically not one to question a shortened runtime, but Immaculate’s plot feels at odds with the 89 minutes it’s allotted. There’s little room to consider compelling moral questions. It’s hard not to ponder a version of this film where Cecilia begins actively buying into the convent’s idea that she is in fact a deity sent by God carrying the second coming of Christ. Or what if she wanted to keep her baby despite its unnatural roots? Instead the plot mechanisms turn so quickly that neither she nor the audience have a moment to reflect on the implications of what’s happening to her. There are a host of avenues the film could’ve explored that might have given audiences more to chew on and make Cecilia’s journey more engaging; Immaculate opts for a straightforward approach that delivers the violent ending it seeks but squanders the potential of its promising setup in the process. 

Immaculate is now in theaters.

Grade: C+

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