‘Immaculate’ review: Nunsploitation meets post-Roe v. Wade era from Mashable

At a glance, Immaculate is provocative. Not only does this horror film center on a pregnant nun, but also, its harried heroine is played by Sydney Sweeney, the American actress known for boundary-pushing TV dramas like Euphoria and White Lotus. Even in the film’s first trailer, there are signs that Immaculate will tap into nunsploitation terrain, colliding Catholic imagery with sensuality and iconoclastic violence. On those fronts, director Michael Mohan delivers. Yet this grisly bit of pregnancy horror still feels underdeveloped. 

To the credit of screenwriter Andrew Lobel, Immaculate takes a claustrophobic tale of terror and winds it into a metaphor for pregnant Americans whose bodies are subject to the beliefs of a religious authority following the overturn of Roe v. Wade. However, despite dedicatedly ghoulish twists, irreverent spectacle, and some terrific performances, this movie falls short of hitting as hard as it should. 

What’s Immaculate about?

Sweeney stars as Sister Cecilia, a novitiate who is preparing to take her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in an Italian convent. There, she will not only devote herself to Christ, but also to the aging nuns to whom this big, stone structure is a hospice. The addled sisters wander the halls, say cryptic things, and occasionally suffer violent outbursts, making for some easy scares. Indeed, jump scares pepper these proceedings. But the heart of the horror here is about Cecilia’s faith being used against her. 

After a cheerful montage shows the American sister finding her footing (even as she openly struggles with the local language), Cecilia is shocked to discover that her strange sickness is actually pregnancy. 

She swears up and down to strapping Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) that she is a virgin, and swiftly the doting Mother Superior (Dora Romano) and intimidating Cardinal (Giorgio Colangeli) declare this is a miracle. With an alarming lack of evidence, they unilaterally declare that Cecilia is carrying the Second Coming. But as her belly grows big with child, this dedicated sister begins to doubt if this pregnancy is what she wants. Of course, being surrounded by devout Catholics who believe her role in life is to be the bearer of this child, conflict will arise. 

Sydney Sweeney and Benedetta Porcaroli have terrific chemistry in Immaculate

This movie borrows pretty heavily in tone and plot from some massively iconic horror movies regarding pregnancy and female spaces. To reveal some would mean major spoilers. However, the first act, in which Cecilia is giddy to join the sisterhood despite its jealousies and in-fighting, recalls Suspiria (either version, really). The moody lighting of the convent creates a surreal space, where long hours of work and devotion collide with blasts of red details (like face-covering masks) to create a giallo-like hellscape. Also in line with the sinister sorority of Suspiria‘s ballet academy are a thrilling collection of friends and foes. 

With wide eyes and an openness, Cecilia becomes fast friends with Sister Gwen (Porcaroli), a former sex worker who escaped an abusive relationship by joining the nunnery. Where Cecilia believes it is God who brought her here, Gwen shrugs at whether God even exists. Despite this massive fundamental difference in faith, they click instantly, whether whispering over group meals or sharing a big wooden bathtub while wearing translucent white chemises — allowing for nunsploitation’s version of a wet T-shirt contest. 

In sharp contrast to this odd couple is Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), who glowers so powerfully, even the audience recoils under her glare. Her jealousy over the praise the pretty American nun gets upon her arrival is ominous but also exciting, the first red flag that Cecilia can’t see through her rose-colored glasses. Yet the violence Isabelle’s attitude forewarns — while shocking — is undercut by a messy middle. 

Immaculate‘s politics are undermined by favoring salacious spectacle over character. 

The first act of the film introduces compelling characters, even as they lean into dated archetypes of naive virgin, mouthy whore, and jealous zealot. However, in the film’s second act, Cecilia’s personality is overwhelmed by the script’s need to make her a prop. On some level this is clever. Perhaps Mohan is reflecting how she has shifted from person to vessel to the Catholics around her, her life not nearly as valued as the fetus inside her womb. But from a viewer’s perspective, it’s not just Cecilia’s bodily autonomy that is lost as the priests and elder nuns co-opt every decision about her birth plan. It’s our access to her innermost thoughts.

Incredibly, while she is given earth-shattering news that not only is she miraculously pregnant but also believed to be carrying Jesus Christ, Cecilia barely has a chance to react. The other sisters fawn or frown or snark, but she gets one single tear to communicate what must be a flood of emotions. 

The third act will pitch her into scenes of violence and much blood, where religious iconography — like a gold cross and a pair of very sturdy rosary beads — will be used as weapons. Undeniably, there’s irreverent pleasure in seeing such preposterous assaults. However, the emotional undercurrent is lost because Cecilia feels more like an abstraction than a flesh-and-blood pregnant person.

This makes for a finale that, while explosive, feels more like an arrogant mic drop than a satisfying climax. The plot makes sense both structurally and politically. But the emotional weight was dropped long before the final shot. Plus, message-wise, it’s muddling to promote bodily autonomy with the plot but still make a spectacle of the nude bodies of the women trapped within this nightmarish story. Even in a story about our rights to our own flesh, our body is not our own, but that of the world’s to goggle. 

Still, props to Sweeney, who not only shows her merit as a leading lady, but also produced Immaculate. While the film wobbles, it shows her fearlessness not only in what she’ll take on as an actress (Nude scenes? Blood? Action? Bring it on!), but also delivers an impossible-to-miss message about the sanctity of a woman or pregnant person’s right over their own body. This concept is where Immaculate comes alive, and in the third act, from which Sweeney’s screams become much more than those of terror. They become a war cry. 

In the end, Immaculate is solid B-movie entertainment, brandishing sex, violence, and gore with a heady mix of irreverence and star power. But despite its proudly presented politics, it could have been more. As I wrote in my Arcadian review (also out of SXSW), when horror is grounded in human stakes and the gnarly tangle of human emotion, it just hits harder. And as Immaculate delivers its final brutal blow, I wish I was more shocked or awed instead of just nodding along. 

Immaculate was reviewed out of SXSW 2024; the movie will open in theaters March 22. 

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