Immaculate (2024)

Immaculate Review


Damsels in distress come in different shapes and sizes, with a variety of skills, personalities and screams. Typically, they are attractive young things with enough life in them that you wouldn’t want it or them snuffed out (well, usually). Sometimes they’re babysitting in suburbia; other times tiptoeing around a mansion with groaning floorboards and dark secrets. Occasionally they turn up wearing a nun’s habit, cloistered within a convent where nothing is as it seems, as is the case in the slickly diverting but undercooked shocker “Immaculate.”

“Io Sono Babtista” (“I Am Babtiste”) Set somewhere far from Rome spiritually as well as geographically “Immaculate” is an Italian scare-fest with a plucky heroine, an irreverent hot-button twist and enough narrative ambiguity to keep audiences arguing after the credits roll. The time is now-ish, give or take a few years; the place is a grim gray stone convent surrounded by grounds so sweeping and walls so forbiddingly high that with a remodel and better lighting it could pass for one of those happily-ever-after princess castles. But the creepy opening scene and sepulchral vibe here suggest that whatever happens next will not be very happy.

Working from Andrew Lobel’s script, director Michael Mohan efficiently delivers his damsel fresh-faced American Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) to the convent without much ceremony or need for extended exposition. As she meets her new sisters in faith, Mohan zips us through its corridors to give us some sense of scale (and exits) within this labyrinthine interior. At 89 minutes, though, his movie is too compressed for him to be able to linger; instead he tends toward fuzziness and genericness. Cecilia’s backstory is conveniently vague: She has come to serve God and surrender her body and soul to his service. Mostly she is there, it seems, to strategically isolate the character, limit her choices and give the movie a dank whiff of Old World exoticism.

Certain details and faces quickly catch our attention an ingratiating but uneasily friendly priest (Álvaro Morte); the no-nonsense mother superior (Dora Romano), who keeps both old and young in line. As Cecilia settles in, she befriends one of the other novices (the appealing Benedetta Porcaroli) and fields puzzling hostility from a young nun (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi). She also encounters a wizened nun with large cross-shaped scars on the soles of her feet now that’s certainly a grabber, but so too is a communal bathing scene in which Cecilia and some of the other younger women pose prettily in a vaulted room, lounging and grooming themselves in semitransparent bathing gowns that show off just how fit they are.

As he did with his 2021 film “The Voyeurs,” Mohan’s take on the old-fashioned (a.k.a. ’80s/’90s) erotic thriller, here again he is doing his part in “Immaculate” to resurrect another disreputable film-fest staple: If Sweeney played a Peeping Tom whose habit of spying on her hot hump-happy neighbors led to familiar overheated mixes of sex, violence and vengeance in that earlier film if this milieu and Sweeney’s character are more interesting here, it’s partly because of our relative unfamiliarity with this particular convent setting still what Mohan has largely done is whip up a genre pastiche that cunningly combines horror-movie frights with paranoid-woman thrills while indulging simultaneously in those special kinky pleasures offered by 1970s-style nunsploitation.

Immaculate,” is much milder than the more extreme specimens of this subgenre, such as the 1974 Japanese film “School of the Holy Beast,” with its whips, thorny roses and weird nuns (Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” from 2021, is ostensibly higher brow). Still, things get strange and stranger when Cecilia gets pregnant and her “Song of Bernadette” adventure slides into “Rosemary’s Baby” territory or so it seems. Like many contemporary movies that feel like feature-length elevator pitches, “Immaculate” is most compelling at the beginning, when we still don’t know anything about who these people are or what kind of world they live in. Once its pieces are in place, the movie coasts and cheats: It rushes to wrap everything up before its banging finale.

But none of this means that “Immaculate” tries to reinvent anything rather than happily acknowledging the familiar one of its strengths. It borrows from established genres and reliable conventions; it uses shock cuts and jump scares while winking at us and making us squirm. More importantly, Mohan and Sweeney together transform a vaguely sketched potentially iffy character into a survivalist heroine whose survival is what the movie really lives for. In this regard, Sweeney’s performance is crucial because it goes full throttle on her looks or rather our ideas about what a wide-eyed innocent babe could be capable of doing to us: She draws us in slyly before going deliriously bloodily amok.

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