Immaculate review Sydney Sweeney nunsploitation

Sydney Sweeney delivers a killer performance in the gratuitous nunsploitation movie Immaculate

2.5 out of 5 stars

In Immaculate, Sydney Sweeney is Cecilia, a white-bread American nun who has ventured to a convent in Italy to care for the elderly. She barely speaks Italian and knows little of what awaits her. She has downturned eyes and a desire to please. Not long after arrival, Cecilia goes from novitiate to sister in a ceremony followed by copious amounts of red wine and nightmarish flashes that foreshadow an evil force lurking in the shadows of the beautifully adorned convent. The spectacle of devotion is neither humble nor good; instead, it betrays an individualist and heretical belief system that wants to play god rather than merely worship him.

Director Michael Mohan previously worked with Sweeney in The Voyeurs, an underrated erotic thriller that was shot and set in Montreal. Just as he captured the seedy gloss of 1980s and ’90s American erotica, he does an above-average job at bringing the nunsploitation film to the 2020s. The locations are real and opulent, the retro soundtrack is unironically good and the nudity is copious and often gratuitous. Aesthetically, the camera movements and edits capture the look and feel of the subgenre’s height in the 1970s. Mohan depicts the erotic textures of Catholicism, the pleasures of suffering, the fetishization of relics (in this case, a nail used to secure Jesus Christ to the cross) and the self-effacing femininity of the convent. 

Immaculate Sydney Sweeney film review
Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate

The film has a similarly glossy surface as The Voyeurs and is not totally unlike the work of Paul Verhoeven, whose most recent film, Benedetta, was also set in a convent. Also, as in The Voyeurs, Mohan’s work is more pastiche than serious. It not only aesthetically represents the world as more commercial and clean than it is, but suggests through these aesthetic signals a kind of hyper-reality where systems of belief are rendered not authentically but as a means of suggesting something inherently contrived about the world it is portraying. Whereas Verhoeven was fascinated in Benedetta by actual systems of belief and worship, Mohan’s approach to the material suggests that those belief systems themselves are relics and completely uprooted from any divinity or spirituality. It’s devotion as pantomime, a way of trying to revive the dead past to secure status and authority. 

The film overflows with compelling ideas and approaches, and Sydney Sweeney gives a killer performance. The final act of Immaculate is bloody and gruesome, pushing the premise to its absolute limit. The movie has balls and it has ideas. It also doesn’t work.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that feels so obviously tampered with. It’s unclear if that’s exactly the case, but the whip-fast running time of 89 minutes is inefficient and confusing. It feels like entire chunks of scenes were left on the editing floor, often sacrificing clarity and cohesion. It’s one thing to “trim the fat,” but it’s another to cut out integral actions and sacrifice momentum in favour of a slick running time. The kind of clued-out editing style does replicate somewhat the messiness of some b-movies that inspired the film, but they don’t square up with the opulence or gloss of the film’s overall approach. If these choices are intended as part of the homage, they fall flat and lose a lot of the good will the film was building towards.

Sydney Sweeney Immaculate movie film review
Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate

The kind of rushed feeling of the entire movie does untold damage to the experience. Despite its compelling ideas, strong images and good performances, the movie becomes an unpleasant experience. There’s no room to breathe and stew in the descending madness. Some of the film’s strongest elements, like a burgeoning friendship between Cecilia and the rebellious smoking nun, Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), feel incomplete. The movie’s cold open, featuring White Lotus alumni Simona Tabasco, fails to integrate properly with the rest of the movie. While it foreshadows the violence lurking below the pretty surfaces (and later reveals a cyclical failure in the insane belief systems), it feels ultimately disconnected. 

Immaculate is a rare film that I’d honestly love to see the director’s cut version of (assuming this isn’t it). The movie has so much potential that it feels squandered by its strange pacing. The insane final act thankfully uplifts the shaky middle portion, overall leaving a mostly positive impact on the audience. Immaculate has huge potential but doesn’t quite live up to it. ■

Immaculate (directed by Michael Mohan)

Immaculate opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 22.

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