Immaculate (2024)

March 18th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Michael Mohan | Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Alvaro Morte, Simona Tabasco, Benedetta Porcaroli | US Horro 89’

Cecilia, a young American woman, travels to an Italian convent to pledge her life to Jesus (“what a waste!” an official sighs ruefully as he processes her through customs), joining a cadre of young nuns dedicated to helping their sick and demented elder sisters through the last phases of their journey to ‘the Lord’. Cecilia completes her vows and is welcomed into the community as its latest bride of Christ. All seems well.

Well, almost all. Sexuality is surprisingly prominent in daily life: elegantly-cut robes flatter lithe figures; one nun suggests that another’s sour demeanour is the result of “her vibrator’s batteries running down”; and, oddest of all, the building has its own well-equipped gynaecological clinic, complete with a dedicated doctor. As more warning signs accumulate, our misgivings about the convent are more than confirmed (a violent prelude has already clued us up on the extreme risks of trying to leave it).

Immaculate is the passion project of its star, Sydney Sweeney, emphasised by the prominence of her name above the film’s title. Noted for her eye-catching appearance in the video for the Rolling Stones single ‘Angry’, the actress first found fame with TV series ‘The White Lotus’ and ‘Euphoria’.

Sweeney isn’t the first actress to use the clout that comes with success to back a dark and challenging project. For instance, Olivia de Havilland was the motive force behind The Heiress (1949): selecting and securing the property, talking William Wyler into directing it, and playing a lead part at odds with her usual serene glamour.

Similarly, the narrative of Immaculate calls for Sweeney to portray a gamut of strong emotions. Cecilia begins the film cowed by the convent’s gravitas and opulence, albeit armed with a quiet, steely faith which will eventually put the institution to the test. She ends it in shrieking, blood-drenched agony, facing a poignantly fateful decision.

Immaculate is a stylish, well-made and intelligently written horror with high production values. Its vision of a malign and conspiratorial Catholicism is not new, but it manages to cast a spell (undermined at times by frequent jump-scares, heavy-handedly underlined by non-diegetic soundtrack explosions) as it builds towards a visceral climax.

The latter part of the film feels a little rushed and truncated, and some elements are under-developed: neither Cecilia’s formative near-death experience nor the existence of a sub-order of sinister, red-masked nuns are fully explored, and I’d have liked more character development for the two nuns (one supportive of Cecilia, the other stonily opposed) who gravitate to her.

But this is Sweeney’s show. The third act sees Cecilia facing her fate almost alone in the once-teeming building as she hurtles towards a starkly memorable denouement. Unlike the cold revenge enjoyed by de Havilland in The Heiress, retribution in Immaculate is served piping hot, and Sweeney throws herself into the finale with such crazed gusto that most will feel sated by her maniacal power. @IanLong @_i_a_n_l_o_n_g_

Ian Long is a writer and story consultant who teaches various aspects of screenwriting in his Deep Narrative Design workshops. ‘Stargazer’, a psychological drama feature co-written with director Christian Neuman will be released later this year, and Ian is currently developing ‘Malediction’, a supernatural feature set in southern Italy.

IMMACULATE is in UK cinemas from Friday 22 March 2024

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