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From Boston Underground Film Festival: ‘Immaculate’ Delivers on Horror

Dir. Michael Mohan — 3.5 Stars

Sydney Sweeney as Cecilia in her newest film "Immaculate" By Courtesy of NEON
Sydney Sweeney as Cecilia in her newest film "Immaculate" By Courtesy of NEON By Courtesy of Neon
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

To open the Boston Underground Film Festival, “Immaculate” had its East Coast premiere at the Brattle Theatre on March 20. An atmospheric horror film about an innocent American nun, Cecilia — played by Sydney Sweeney, who also produced the movie — who appears to immaculately become pregnant in a rural Italian convent where all is not as it seems.

The film is undeniably horrifying, with toe-curling gore and relentless suspense that rarely becomes gratuitous. Though the melodrama occasionally borders on camp, it does so with stylish flair. The juxtaposition of sumptuous iconography with austere settings and identical nun habits is especially effective. For the most part, the film isn’t afraid to use lighting to ensure viewers can actually see every terrifying moment on screen.

Surprisingly, despite its utilization of gore, the horror elements in “Immaculate” largely avoid the central themes of pregnancy, body horror, or religious cults that ought to be fundamental in a film predicated on an evil immaculate conception.

Despite this, the plot throughout lacks subtlety. Characters divulge their backstories without prompting, often monologuing to empty air instead of engaging in meaningful interactions without each other. While this approach quickly populates the world of the film with stock characters to support Cecilia’s journey, it feels distinctly like a missed opportunity. “Immaculate” builds fear and suspense through the threat and danger posed by other people, not by mythical powers or supernatural monsters, and so the blandness of the entire cast sticks out against the pleasure in the film’s curated aesthetic.

This is made clear through the character of Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), a fellow initiate at the convent who lacks the fanatic devotion of the other nuns, and is Cecilia’s only confidant. Like most characters, she spouts her traumatic backstory to Cecilia and the audience at the film’s first moment of quiet — hoping to find sanctity from male violence by living as a nun — but shares this during a random scene of nudity and communal bathing that might be ironic in a better movie. The cinematography is clearly anxious not to sexually objectify its lead, but includes random nudity and occasionally objectifying framing of these female characters. Porcaroli performs her character’s bitterness and desperation with verve, but is ultimately given little to do within the broader story.

Michael Mohan’s direction revels in slow tracking shots, effectively building tension as the threat steadily intensifies and the situation becomes more convoluted. These deliberate shots predominantly center Sweeney, allowing her to emote to her heart’s content. Sweeney is undeniably the lifeblood of the film; there is hardly a scene without her character. But she doesn’t truly hit her stride until the second half.

Initially, Cecilia’s portrayal as beatifically pious exudes a forced innocence that appears nothing but strained, marked by a mumbled, chomping delivery that suggests they made automated dialogue replacement optional that day. However, as the gentle Cecilia becomes vengeful and determined against those who have wronged her, Sweeney’s desperation and grit become palpable and moving on the big screen, and make the passion project that is “Immaculate” worthwhile.

The film is most effective when it revels in this rawness — characters who want things unapologetically and act to make them happen, plots that are the consequence of logical choices made onscreen — but there are also some odd lapses in realism in the first half. For example, there is a chilling scene where Sweeney peels off her fingernail for unclear reasons that doesn’t make any logical sense in context. Moments like these detrimentally diminishes the film’s frank interest in the banality of evil present otherwise.

The film also features creative sound mixing that is powerful in its restraint. It knows there are many sounds more visceral than a scream, and chooses carefully when to go loud. Moments of gospel-like music or atmospheric scores are carefully chosen to build dread and add to the grandeur of the setting. “Immaculate” is most impressive at these moments, when it isn’t afraid to fully commit to an idea and try something off the beaten track. The film’s ending in particular is gutsy and effective, so it’s a shame it spent so much of the first half meandering and clearing its throat.

—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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