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Breaking Down the Unsettling Ending of Immaculate

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Immaculate

In Immaculate, Neon’s unholy new horror film, Sydney Sweeney plays Sister Cecilia, an American novitiate who is recruited to join a convent in the idyllic Italian countryside, where sinister secrets lurk behind the foreboding gates. Sweeney makes a strong case for her canonization among the great scream queens of this century, delivering a blood-curdling performance as Cecilia finds herself unexpectedly, impossibly, horrifyingly pregnant after taking her vows to become a nun. Written by Andrew Lobel and directed by Michael Mohan, the film follows Cecilia as she uncovers the darkness within the convent and the origins of the supposed miracle growing within her body.

“Death is a part of everyday life here”

As the icy Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi) informs Cecilia upon her arrival, the convent is also a hospice, founded “as a refuge for elder sisters before their transition to heaven.” This means that in addition to Cecilia’s duties as laundress, bride of Christ, and chicken butcher—although try as she might, she can’t bring herself to kill a hen—she is also responsible for caring for the convent’s oldest sisters. This group includes Sister Francesca (Betty Pedrazzi), a delightfully foreboding presence throughout the film (and some nuns played by  Sweeney’s own grandmothers!)

Despite the standoffishness and scary behavior of some of the other nuns, Cecilia does make a friend: the rebellious Sister Gwen (Benedetta Procaroli), whom Cecilia finds smoking a cigarette in their shared bathroom on her first day. “We’re all runaways or headcases,” Gwen informs her. Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), she explains, “has a way of sniffing out broken birds.”

Cecilia soon sees this for herself as she takes her vows, with Father Tedeschi translating for her because she speaks only beginner’s Italian. At the celebration following the ceremony, he pulls her aside for a glass of wine. It’s during this conversation that we learn how Cecilia chose to be a nun: when she was 12, she nearly drowned in an icy lake. After somehow surviving seven minutes without a heartbeat, she concluded God must have saved her for a higher purpose—one she feels she is still waiting to discover. Father Tedeschi nods along, practically salivating.

“Suffering is love”

As it turns out, Cecilia doesn’t have to wait long to discover her purpose. After the ceremony, she wanders by mistake into a strange chamber where she finds a nun whose face is a featureless blood-red mask, prostrate before an altar. Before she can react, the Mother Superior (Dora Romano) materializes to show Cecilia exactly what makes this chamber so sacred: a relic. And not just any relic, but what appears to be one of the nails used to hold Jesus to the cross.

Cecilia is overwhelmed by the proximity of such an unspeakably sacred object, by the faceless woman still lying on the floor mere feet away, and perhaps even by the wine she shared earlier with Father Tedeschi. She sways, the Mother Superior’s voice warping in her ears, before falling to the stone floor unconscious. When Cecilia awakes, she’s surrounded by a crowd of the featureless, red-faced nuns. They hold her down, prying and stabbing at her face and body as she writhes in terror.

The next morning she is convinced it was all a dream brought about by too much of the blood of Christ. But then, she begins feeling unusually nauseous. After an examination from the convent’s Dr. Gatto (Giampiero Judica) she is hauled before an informal tribunal. Father Tedeschi and the Deacon question her about her vows, with particular focus on one question: has she truly remained chaste? Confused and afraid, Cecilia insists that she has—and suddenly, the interrogation becomes a celebration. From the convent’s dusty, wood-paneled depths emerges an ultrasound machine, confirming that she is pregnant despite her virginity. Her baby must be the second coming of Christ. She looks on in horror, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate<span class="copyright">Courtesy of NEON</span>
Sydney Sweeney in ImmaculateCourtesy of NEON

“Your job is baby”

For a congregation witnessing an (almost) unprecedented miracle, the denizens of the convent are eerily prepared. They conduct a ceremony in which Cecilia is dressed in robes reminiscent of the Virgin Mary (which they just happened to have on hand, in her size), and she is quickly stripped of her various day-to-day tasks: “No work,” the Mother Superior tells her. “Your job is baby.”

But as her pregnancy progresses, she grows more uneasy. The other nuns give her a wide berth, bristling with uncertainty, awe, and resentment. Matters come to a head when Isabelle tries to drown Cecilia while she’s taking a bath, shouting cryptically, “You have to try again! It was supposed to be me!” The next day, Isabelle falls to her death from the convent roof—but her words still echo in Cecilia’s mind. She feels herself growing weaker by the day, but Father Tedeschi and Dr. Gatto refuse to let her visit a hospital.

Increasingly agitated by her friend’s state, Gwen has a public meltdown, demanding that Cecilia be taken for proper prenatal care. Later that night Cecilia goes looking for Gwen to discuss her fear, but the other nun is missing. She follows the sound of Gwen’s screams to find her friend tied up, struggling as her tongue is cut out.

Her worst fears confirmed, Cecilia devises a plan to escape. Overcoming her aversion to chicken killing, she slaughters a bird and covers herself in its blood, crying out as though in pain to make Father Tedeschi believe the baby is in jeopardy. He packs her into the car to race her to the hospital, but they are only halfway there when the Mother Superior finds the dead chicken in Cecilia’s room and calls Father Tedeschi.

Realizing she’s been found out, Cecilia leaps from the car and sprints through picturesque rolling hills in a sequence that would be reminiscent of The Sound of Music if it weren’t for the dressing gown drenched in blood, and the fact that Father Tedeschi quickly catches her. Locked once again behind the gate, Cecilia is no longer in the convent’s good graces. She is tied to a wheelchair. To provide further insurance against her escape, Father Tedeschi sears the soles of her feet with a metal brand in the shape of a cross. And like any good villain, as he’s torturing her, he reveals his true plan.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate<span class="copyright">Courtesy of NEON</span>
Sydney Sweeney in ImmaculateCourtesy of NEON

“If this is not the work of God, why does God not stop us?”

Father Tedeschi, formerly a biologist, believes he has harvested Jesus’s DNA from the relic. For years, he has been attempting to bring about the messiah by impregnating the nuns. Cecilia’s pregnancy is his most successful attempt so far, he tells her, gesturing toward a collection of jars, their misshapen contents preserved in amber.

Temporarily subdued by the weight of this revelation (and the burns on her feet), Cecilia undergoes another ultrasound. When Father Tedeschi leaves the room, putting the Mother Superior in charge, Cecilia seizes the chance to pummel her with a large metal crucifix. With the Mother Superior out of the picture, Cecilia hobbles into the hall, only to feel her water break. “Goddammit,” she exclaims, perfectly.

Now that she understands the scale of Father Tedeschi’s operation, Cecilia isn’t content to merely run away. She wants to take the entire structure down with her. First she finds the Cardinal (Giorgio Colangeli), and strangles him with her rosary. Next, she makes her way back to Father Tedeschi’s lab, intent on burning it to the ground. He tries to stop her, but she locks him inside and is treated to a moment of sweet relief as she watches the lab burn, believing her torturer is burning with it. Then, she sees the puff of a fire extinguisher, and flees into the catacombs upon which the convent is constructed.

The tense and twisty chase scene that follows culminates when Cecilia nearly escapes out a tunnel, only to be pulled back by a now badly burned Father Tedeschi. He produces a scalpel and tries to cut the baby out of her, but she stabs him with the relic, and this time he dies for good.

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Two births and a death

Cecilia claws her way out of the long tunnel of the catacombs and into a sunny day drenched in blood, stripped of her innocence, and symbolically reborn—and she begins to scream. Her howl lasts what seems at once like an eternity and an instant. According to an interview with TODAY, the take we see in the film was the very first take, and it was completely unrehearsed.

The scream gives voice to all of the fear, rage, sorrow, and pain she has endured since arriving at the convent. As becomes clear only through her facial expressions and strategic sound design choices, it’s also the sound of her giving birth. But from the sinister gurgling, growling, wheezing sounds the creature makes upon its emergence, it’s clear all is not well. Considering the state of Father Tedeschi’s past attempts at this experiment, the degraded state of the millennia-old genetic material he would have harvested off the nail, and the doubt as to whether the DNA could truly have belonged to Jesus (or even a human) at all, this isn’t a surprise.

Cecilia’s face is a mask of exhaustion, resolve, and gore. Still panting in pain, she limps over to a crumbling wall, hefts a large stone overhead, and brings it down. The camera stays trained on her face the entire time, but we are made to understand that she has killed the experiment that was placed within her against her will. In the background, birds sing.

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