Immaculate (United States, 2024)

March 23, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Immaculate Poster

Remove Sydney Sweeney from Immaculate and what remains scarcely seems worth the time to watch. Set in a cloistered location, the film builds suspense through the insular nature of the setting but the storyline is muddled, the pacing is uneven, and certain plot developments (especially in the third act) strain even the generous credulity of a horror movie. Sweeney, however, elevates the proceedings with a performance that makes her character both believable and sympathetic and therefore “sells” aspects that might otherwise not work.

Immaculate claims a variety of sources for inspiration including (but not limited to) Italian giallo films, Rosemary’s Baby, and (perhaps incongruously) Frank Herbert’s Dune (the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit tracks closely with an element of Immaculate’s storyline). Everything transpires within a closed community, giving the authority figures complete control. The time period is unclear. The movie seemingly transpires in the near past although it could conceivably be set at any time in the late 20th or early 21st centuries.

The film’s early scenes track the arrival of Sister Cecilia (Sweeney) at an isolated convent in Italy where she takes her vows and provides palliative care to terminally ill nuns. At first, Cecilia believes she has found her calling; a sentiment echoed by the supportive priest, Father Sal Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte), who offers counsel and provides English-to-Italian translation for the young nun. Then, one day after taking a bath, Cecilia becomes ill. A pregnancy test comes back positive and, although Cecilia has kept her vow of chastity and never had sex with a man, she is nevertheless with child. Perhaps surprisingly, her claims of an immaculate conception are accepted with little pushback and she is soon a revered figure within the convent. The head of the local religious order, Cardinal Franco Merola (Giorgio Colangeli), and the Mother Superior (Dora Romano), are delighted. Cecilia’s own feelings are conflicted; she is less-than-delighted about the life growing within her and becomes aware of suspicious and disturbing occurrences in the convent, including the disappearance of her friend, the brash and skeptical Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli).

Although director Michael Mohan gamely tries to amplify the sense of claustrophobia inherent in Cecilia’s situation, he is not entirely successful. The one exception is a chase sequence late in the proceedings with characters racing through benighted catacombs with only flashlights to light the way. Also, excepting Cecilia, the characters are thinly-drawn and none is developed beyond what is necessary to serve the plot.

In past projects like Euphoria and The White Lotus, Sweeney has shown a level of dramatic range that some of her recent mainstream enterprises (in particular the rom-com Anyone But You and the lamentable Madame Web) haven’t encouraged. Here, she shows an affinity for horror (something previously evident in Nocturne); moreover, there’s a scene in which she cements herself as one of the best scream queens in modern cinema. (The two-minute sequence is quite remarkable.)

It's not hard to admire Immaculate’s aspirations and it succeeds in going against the grain of most current horror movies. With its R-rating and lack of jump-scares, it is more interested in the psychological aspect of the genre. Unfortunately, the filmmakers aren’t able to push the envelope far enough to craft something that works on all levels. Immaculate is at times unsettling and the ending contains a strong shock element but the movie as a whole feels a little too familiar to engage its audience.

Immaculate (United States, 2024)

Director: Michael Mohan
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Alvaro Morte, Benedetta Porcaroli, Dora Romano, Giorgio Colangeli
Screenplay: Andrew Lobel
Cinematography: Elisha Christian
Music: Will Bates
U.S. Distributor: NEON
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 2024-03-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Nudity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1