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Immaculate feels like the most Hollywood movie. Like a film quickly concocted in an executive dinner meeting where three boozed-up men between try to come up with the best concept for their actress. What do you do when you have access to the new young actress everyone wants a piece of? Do a horror movie, of course. Wait, how can we make it even racier? She’s a nun!

It’s perfect for Hollywood, but even more perfect that this project was spearheaded by Sydney Sweeney, the actress in question, as a passion project of sorts. In the process, it reveals the subversiveness of the concept – Immaculate is about a young, attractive woman fighting for the autonomy of her body within an old patriarchal institution. Hats off to Sweeney. This is how you play the game.

Sweeney is Sister Cecilia, a young nun from Michigan who recently arrived at a convent in Italy’s countryside. Unsurprisingly, the place hides a dark secret. While the front is a convent that treats older nuns before they peacefully die, there are also the expected tropes of the genre, from mysterious hooded people roaming through the night to young nuns disappearing unconventionally. Cecilia is quickly embraced by the father (Sal Tedeschi) and the Mother Superior (Dora Romano), who constantly comment on her grace and beauty. Her body is idolised and chastity idolised by some and an object of jealousy by others, and this is all added to the oppressive elements Cecilia is subjected to.

It’s like the beginning of Suspiria; Cecilia, doe-eyed, is impervious to the threats surrounding her. We can see them because director Michael Mohan doesn’t shy away from the real. There is familiarity in his visual cues that can easily be misconstrued as clichéd, but are there to cut corners and deliver to the audience a compelling experience. We’re spoiled with high-concept, intelligent auteur horror movies. Immaculate refreshingly cuts to the chase.

The harshness of Cecilia’s routine quickly unveils itself – she finds herself pregnant by immaculate conception. For a devout nun, this is a confusing predicament. “Why me?” she asks, even if the convent is now pampering her with attention and care. Cecilia never asked for this gift. She plays the role but, little by little, questions its intentions. The film keeps the source of its mystery hidden until it’s ready to let the finale unleash – and what a finale it is. If, for the most part, Immaculate is entertaining but a little too “by the numbers”, it lets it all out in a brutal and bloody climax. It’s all imbued with symbolism and rage, and the last moment is a feminist statement so in-your-face it couldn’t be accidental – Mohan, writer Andrew Lobel, and Sweeney know precisely what they are doing.

That said, Immaculate plays too safe until the final sequence. I did like how it didn’t let the nunsploitation imagery stand in the way of the film’s message of body autonomy. Often overly sexualised in Western culture, nuns were portrayed as forbidden fruit in schlocky and pulpy B-movies in the 70s. Virginal, innocent and young, but in a setting of atmospheric oppression and patriarchy run amok. In the classic style of exploitation, they tried to have their cake and eat it too – the films often criticised the tyranny of the patriarchy through the lens of the male gaze.

Immaculate knows better. Mohan shoots the film with a gothic atmosphere that is more unappealing and disturbing than alluring. He avoids naked skin, but when he has to show it, it feels invasive and wrong. Some of his shots are too easy – like the confession scene where Cecilia is shot framed by the window, like a jail cell – but then again, Mohan isn’t overcomplicating his craft.

Sweeney is the star. The project only materialised when she joined as a producer. Mohan was her choice to direct, and she secured most of the funding. The significance of the message is not lost – Sweeney became famous after her role in HBO’s Euphoria and has seen the narrative around her as the next Hollywood sexy superstar. A new Marilyn Monroe, whose body is to be exploited for all our gratification. Like Andrew Dominik’s misunderstood Blonde, which forced us to face our responsibility for Monroe’s trauma. Getting ahead of it, Sweeney made a film about how she’s the one driving the narrative.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
It delivers what it promises. It’s by no means profound, but it is intelligent.