de facto film reviews 3 stars

The newest religious horror film on the block is pretty respectable, but its sin is failing to do enough to stand out in a highly competitive modern cinematic landscape. The movie in question is director Michael Mohan’s Immaculate, a disturbing descent into the efforts some supposedly righteous holy figures will undergo to turn scripture into reality. What would otherwise come off as a relatively routine Christo-horror gets upended by the presence of the current Hollywood “it” girl, Sydney Sweeney, who hopes for a breakout genre performance and almost attains it.

Immaculate - Sister Cecilia

Courtesy of Neon

Sweeney reconnects with Mohan for this recent festival favorite after having starred in his thriller, The Voyeurs, three years prior. In Immaculate, she plays Sister Cecilia, an American transplant in Italy who aims to take her vows at a reclusive convent that eases dying nuns into their transition to the afterlife. Almost immediately, an official takes advantage of Cecilia’s poor Italian comprehension and makes a creepy comment about her body. Shortly thereafter, following a series of eerie moments featuring mentally disturbed nuns and a surreal confession, Cecilia and her superiors discover that she is pregnant despite never having had sex.

As Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), who personally invited Cecilia to the convent, and the rest of its members begin to worship the girl as the Virgin Mary reincarnated, she begins to realize that darker machinations are at work and that she is a prisoner at the very place in which she was seeking absolution. This concept of immaculate conception is nothing new in the world of horror. However, Mohan’s project (revived by Sweeney, who became a producer after years of development hell) takes a much more subtle and character-based approach than others.

Immaculate - Father Tedeschi

Courtesy of Neon

Whereas many religious horrors heavily emphasize the antichrist plot device and its supernatural connotations, Immaculate turns its focus to Sister Cecilia’s emotional and physical turmoil as she grapples with the supposed “miracle” inside her belly and the hidden cruelties of those around her. The script, penned by Andrew Lobel, gives Cecilia room to grow from the sweet and innocent novitiate at the film’s beginning to something far more fearsome. Sweeney does a commendable job of exhibiting the range of emotions this transformation entails and the physical burden of carrying a child. Despite this, I would be remiss not to mention her slight unbelievability as a Detroit-area native in the film, considering her non-distinct acting throughout the first act or so.

As advertised, the Euphoria star is the highlight of Immaculate, though the rest of the cast does well supporting her. Unfortunately, beyond the protagonist’s observed woes, there is little other depth to any of the characters, and the plot is ultimately as straight-laced as many of the holy men and women driving it forward. The story is quite narrow and seems unwilling to take any meaningful leaps to explore its religious themes with more scrutiny, and flashes of gory brilliance are few and far between. Furthermore, Cecilia’s character becomes far too embroiled in the mystery behind her circumstances to allow for a deeper exploration of her person.

Immaculate - Cecilia Running

Courtesy of Neon

However, the build-up of the mystery and suspense is engaging and well-constructed. Immaculate’s first half carefully plants relevant symbols in plain sight and less apparent ideas and motives in its central players’ cherry-picked words and deceptive smiles. Moreover, the film’s stellar atmosphere envelops the intriguing plot with a richly historic and hauntingly beautiful setting, made even more eerie and striking due to Elisha Christian’s sumptuous cinematography. Besides Sweeney’s tonally superior second-half performance, Immaculate’s production design is easily its best quality.

I believe it is fair to call Immaculate the best religious horror film since Saint Maud; its gorgeous photography, the spectacular architecture of the monastery housing its terrible secrets, excellent costume design, admittedly impressive gore effects, and Sweeney’s spiraling desperation and reawakening as Sister Cecilia make for a good showing despite the script’s shortcomings. Whether or not this catapults the actress into the conversation of contemporary Screen Queens remains to be seen, but some moments do beg the question more than others.

Immaculate is now playing in select theaters nationwide.