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Director – Michael Mohan – 2023 – US – Cert. – 89m


A virginal, American, novice nun cloistered in an Italian convent finds herself mysteriously pregnant – out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 22nd

A young nun attempts to flee a convent in the middle of the night, but before she can gate the gate open with a key on a large bunch is caught by mysterious nuns with red coverings over their faces, and finds herself buried alive in a coffin. This opening sequence doesn’t bode well for any new nun entering the convent such as the novice Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney, also the film’s producer, from Reality, Tina Satter, 2023), a young woman from a parish in the US that closed down, forcing her to seek a position elsewhere, and who believes God wants her to enter this particular convent, which doubles as a care home for ageing nuns run by Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) and the incumbent Mother Superior (Dora Romano). The premises are built over a network of catacombs.

Before taking her vows on the day she arrives – of which she is told she could opt out beforehand if she doesn’t want to go through with them – Sister Cecilia is entrusted into the care of Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), an embittered type who doesn’t feel anything like a woman who has given herself to the service of God. Cecilia meets a more sympathetic nun, Sister Gwendoline (Benedetta Porcaroli), who breaks the mould by being a smoker and has a relationship with the institution not unlike that of a convict adjusted to a prison who appreciates the free board and lodging as preferable to the social uncertainty and terrors of the outside world.

Some time after Cecilia has taken her vows, it emerges that as a child, she fell through ice into a freezing lake, from which potentially lethal situation she believes herself to have been saved by God for some as yet unrevealed purpose.

Strange goings-on occur in Cecilia’s new convent. One night she finds a nun prostrate on the floor praying in Latin in a chamber with pillars (a chapel?) who turns out to have a mysterious red face like the nuns shown to the audience in the opening sequence. Another night, she is rudely awakened when one of the old nuns, possibly demented, sneaks in through her bedroom window and cuts off a lock of Cecilia’s hair. And when she goes to confession, the priest sitting listening to her sits in not in the expected interior confessional box but instead a lengthy passage down which the chair in which he is seated rapidly moves away from her.

She later discovers a relic in the form of a six-inch-long nail from the cross on which Christ was crucified and old nuns onto the soles of whose feet the image of a cross has been branded.

The narrative eventually delivers its coup de grâce: Sister Cecilia is pregnant, despite being a virgin, facts verified by the institution’s resident healthcare professional Doctor Gallo (Giampiero Judica from All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott, 2017) and the convent declares this to be a miracle. Sister Isabella, none to happy about this and claiming Cecilia has usurped her position, tries to drown her in a bath. Sister Gwendoline, meanwhile, is the one person on the premises who seems to talk to Cecilia openly without worrying about what anyone there might think. Both, separately, are destined to come to an unpleasant end.

Cecilia, nightdress covered in blood is taken to the nearest hospital until, en route, her drivers decide she’s faked it and decide to return her to the convent, at which point she makes a run for it…

You could take this as a religious horror film in which a nun enters a convent and becomes pregnant with a monster baby, which has echoes of any number of far superior monster baby horror films running the gamut from Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968 – a woman impregnated with the Antichrist) to Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979 – a human impregnated with an alien foetus). It also echoes the mad scientist school of science-fiction / horror, with Dr. Gallo given his own genetics laboratory on the premises for conducting nefarious experiments.

However, more than anything, it’s an excuse for a horror movie about the Catholic Church, in the milieu of nuns in a convent with lots of religious trappings. Yet to anyone with any kind of insider knowledge about religion, it largely plays out as just plain silly. That’s a shame, because there is some terrific lighting by cinematographer Elisha Christian that extracts the maximum possible amount of eeriness, mystery and sense of the unknown from some of the locations, especially the underground or enclosed architectural interiors.

The narrative, at least as done here with a US nun coming to an Italian convent, plays on American fears of Europe (or, at least, Italy). In that respect, I was reminded of the American dancer who joins the dancing academy of Suspiria, made in both the 1977 Dario Argento version and the 2018 Luca Guadagnino remake by an Italian rather than an American. Unlike Suspiria, where the villains are a witch’s coven, it’s also a story in which women have terrible things perpetrated on them by a hierarchy controlled by men.

Overall, the performances are solid enough. It’s just a shame so much of the proceedings are so unbelievably silly.

And yet, while much of the film didn’t really do it for me, the last quarter of an hour or so exhibits a complete change of sensibility which had me on the edge of my seat. There’s a terrific hunt / pursuit / attempt to escape sequence set in the catacombs which were mentioned very early on, followed by an unforgettable finale in which Cecilia finally gives birth to whatever it is she’s carrying inside her. The positioning of the camera in this final sequence cleverly shows you very little, leaving much of what is going on up to the viewer’s imagination. More than that I don’t want to say for fear of spoilers, except that where much of the film felt wildly unbelievable, this end section effectively dispenses with the religion that you rather suspect no-one on the production believes in any sense shape or form to concentrate on the dark tunnels / mad scientist / monster baby / tormented mother-to-be aspects, all of which are far more believable and pay off in spades.

A fairly predictable, Catholicism-flavoured horror, with an extraordinary ending which proves all the more effective for not relying in the slightest on the film’s earlier religious flavour.

Immaculate is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 22nd.


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