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“Immaculate” reviewed

Immaculate is probably too tasteful and elegant to qualify as “nunsploitation,” which could be a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view. Directed by Michael Mohan, the film stars Sydney Sweeney as Sister Cecilia, a novitiate from Michigan who arrives at a remote Italian convent all bright-eyed and hopeful about what God has planned for her, only to discover that one must sometimes be careful what one wishes for. As an atmospheric thriller, it has all the trimmings: creepy, candlelit corridors; mysterious catacombs; nightmare visions of black-cloaked figures; and impressive bursts of gore. But it’s also reserved in surprising ways. For all its moments of shlocktacular flair, it’s an art film at heart.

“What a waste,” says an airport immigration official to his partner upon seeing the lovely Cecilia’s luminous face. “You can still leave,” says a stone-faced fellow nun (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi) right before our heroine takes her vows. (“You’re very sweet,” she also tells Cecilia, before icily adding, “I don’t mean that as a compliment.”) The film opens with a flashback to another young nun attempting to escape the convent under cover of night and then having her legs broken against the steel bars of the gate by a group of mysterious figures. Which is all just another way of saying that we know nothing good will ultimately come of Cecilia’s arrival at this place, where her ostensible task will be to take care of elderly sisters who are not long for this world. When our heroine winds up inexplicably pregnant, despite the fact that no men have been allowed near her, the church leadership decides it’s another immaculate conception, and she goes from a lowly servant of God to the prospective mother of a potential new savior — an object of semi-worship put on a (literal) pedestal, vested in elegant robes, her hair done in curls.

I will admit that Immaculate did keep me guessing for most of its running time as how all this religious intrigue would play out. Not because the film requires any kind of credulousness on the part of the viewer. (As noted, it’s pretty clear from frame one that sinister shenanigans are afoot at this creepy remote Italian convent built over an ancient catacomb and that also houses an actual nail from the actual cross that Jesus was actually crucified on.) But Mohan and screenwriter Andrew Lobel are so cavalier with their narrative ellipses that much of what’s actually happening and what Cecilia really thinks about it remains ambiguous. (At a pleasingly slim 89 minutes, the film leaves a lot unsaid and unshown.)

The director — whose previous film with Sweeney, 2021’s The Voyeurs, was a subtler variation on the De Palma–style erotic thriller, and who also made the surprisingly nerve-wracking 2012 Lizzy Caplan rom-com Save the Date (a personal favorite) — has always had a refined approach to visual storytelling, but he can also shift his style enough not to betray his chosen genre. And so, Immaculate goes all in on mood, with Mohan clearly taking the Italian setting to heart. His camera luxuriates in the convent’s ancient walls, the murmuring shadows, the pitch-black backgrounds with occasional shocks of color, with sister Cecilia seeming more and more timeless (and helpless) against it all. Will Bates’s enchantingly aggressive score mixes in chants and swelling crescendos with sickly sweet, Ennio Morricone–esque melodies. The giallo vibes are strong with this one.

That can sometimes be a problem, too, because Immaculate is … well, a little too immaculate to really embrace full-on giallo savagery, or gonzo Ken Russell–esque depravity, or even winking Verhoevian camp. It’s got tons of blood, technically speaking — and it’s even got some amputation and slicing and one gnarly, gooey nail-pulling. But it’s not what one might call bloody or full-blooded.

As an experience in suspense, however, the film is effective. Mohan seduces us with form while the central performance engages us on a more elemental level. Sweeney’s huge eyes go from pools of sweetness to pools of terror to pools of rage whenever the film calls for it, and the film calls for it more and more as the story heads toward a climax that is all the more gruesome for what we don’t see. What matters is that we see her — and she’s spectacular.