Immaculate: transformation from naif to a powerful and liberated woman through exploitation and trauma

Michael Mohan, “Immaculate” (2024)

The, er, venerable niche horror subgenre known as nunsploitation is revived and refreshed as a vehicle for one young woman’s transformation through trauma and an unnatural pregnancy from a shy and self-doubting young naif into a powerful and unstoppable woman able to look after herself and capable of killing anyone and anything that gets in her way. After a near-fatal accident during which she was declared dead for several minutes, young Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney), convinced that God saved her from death for a purpose, joins a nunnery in Italy that also acts as a nursing care home for retired nuns. Some time after taking her vows in the nunnery, to her horror Cecilia discovers she is pregnant, even though she has never had sexual relations with a man. The Mother Superior (Dora Romano), Father Sal Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte) and the Cardinal (Giorgio Colangeli) however believe Cecilia is carrying Jesus on His Second Return, and the rest of the convent starts to treat Cecilia as though she is the Virgin Mary. Over time, as the pregnancy advances, Cecilia’s health takes a turn for the worse and in desperation Cecilia tries to escape the nunnery and go to a hospital for help. Her attempt at faking a miscarriage is quickly discovered and Cecilia is imprisoned by Tedeschi who explains to her that before he became a priest, he was a geneticist and had been spending the past 20 years trying to create a new Messiah using remnant DNA found on an ancient nail brought back from Jerusalem and believed to be one of the nails that pierced Jesus’s body while he was being crucified on the cross.

From here on, the film becomes a gory cat-and-mouse routine in which Cecilia despatches the most senior people in the nunnery and puts a fiery end to Tedeschi’s genetic experiments. Cecilia must summon all her strength and determination to leave the nunnery via an underground catacomb network despite suffering labour pains, with a deranged Tedeschi in hot pursuit. Even then, after literally nailing Tedeschi, Cecilia still has to face the ultimate trauma of giving birth either to the Messiah (as the loonies at the nunnery claimed) or to the Devil’s Spawn.

The plot is straightforward if thin, and most viewers will be able to guess quickly how the plot develops and what its outcome will be. In this day and age of female empowerment, one can expect Cecilia will have to depend on her own inner resources and strength and get herself out of the remote nunnery: the journey she takes to that goal is brisk though it is not without its flaws. One character who could have been a formidable foe is taken out of the film early through suicide, and another character who could have helped Cecilia is bundled out through mediaeval torture: in both cases, these minor characters are wasted. Morte plays a suave and oily priest, and the rest of the cast play their stereotyped characters well. However, the theme of self-transformation, and self-transformation into the very creature feared by the Roman Catholic Church more than it fears Satan, demands considerable acting talent and experience and in this Sweeney proves herself a brilliant performer committed to her character.

The film touches on various themes and issues that have long been part and parcel of the nunsploitation horror film subgenre: issues like religious repression and hypocrisy, the exploitation of women and their bodies and minds by unscrupulous self-serving superiors (male and female), the nature of evil and Satan, and religion’s (and society’s) obsession with controlling women’s fertility and human reproduction. Along the way, the exploitation of religious belief and prophecy to force humanity onto particular paths that may end up being self-destructive, and how such exploitation can have unintended and traumatic consequences is explored somewhat.

Even though there are many horror film cliches present, the violence can be savage and gory, and the direction can’t resist milking maximum horror and gore where possible, the film is well paced and able to tread the balance between all-out horror flick and genuine dark thriller. Its escalation of tension and horror is done very well and the final scene is suitably cathartic as Cecilia completes her transformation and is ready to face the world outside the closed environment of the nunnery. You know though, that whatever savagery she may face in the real world will be nothing compared to the horrors and traumas she experienced in what should have been a place of shelter and comfort.