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‘Immaculate’ Review: Sydney Sweeney-Led Religious Horror Movie Overshadowed By Overplayed Tropes – SXSW

In the realm of religious horror, one filled with tales of divine terror, Immaculate emerges as the latest contender. Yet despite its promising setup within the shadowy confines of an Italian nunnery and a cast led by Sydney Sweeney, the film struggles to carve out a niche for itself. Directed by Michael Mohan and written by Andrew Lobel, the movie treads familiar ground, recycling familiar elements without delivering the novel twists, deeper insights or genuine horror in a genre that thrives on the exploration of faith’s darker dimensions.

The opening scene grips the audience with a woman’s desperate attempt to escape from a nunnery, only to be thwarted and mysteriously buried alive. The story then shifts to Sister Cecilia (Sweeney), a novitiate embarking on her spiritual journey at the nunnery, undeterred by skepticism at customs and cautionary advice from Sister Mary (Simona Tabasco) about her vows. Her encounter with Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) and roommate Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli) sets the stage for her devout commitment, despite unnoticed eerie occurrences.

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Sister Cecilia’s initial optimism blinds her to the nunnery’s unsettling events, events that Sister Gwen perceives with growing concern. After taking her vows, Cecilia’s investigation into the unusual leads to a chilling experience with a relic believed to be a nail from the crucifixion, causing her to faint and subsequently be plagued with terrifying visions and apparitions. Her unexpected pregnancy further intensifies the mystery, compelling her to question the true reason behind her calling to the nunnery and Father Tedeschi’s intentions.

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Immaculate’s film score evokes a sense of eerie dread, a bright spot in its atmospheric setting. However, the film’s auditory experience is distracted by overemphasis on volume, particularly in service of its jump-scares. This heavy-handed approach to sound design, while initially effective one or twice, diminishes the suspense and leans into predictability, overshadowing the subtle intricacies of the score.

The same can be said for the film’s imagery. Mohan delivers a series of disturbing visuals paired with moments of graphic violence that might satisfy on a superficial level, but they fall short of achieving true terror as the potential to unsettle frequently is undermined by perplexing character decisions and a plot that meanders, leaving me more baffled than frightened. Moreover, the reliance on these images to create shock serves as a reminder that genuine horror requires more than just sensory assault. It demands a cohesive story and well-developed characters to anchor the fear, making the horror resonate on a deeper, more psychological level.

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The biggest flaw lies within the film’s narrative structure and character development, particularly in how Sister Cecilia interacts with the unfolding horror. Despite being surrounded by ominous signs and eerie apparitions, not to mention a miraculous pregnancy, Cecilia’s responses often border on apathetic, lacking the depth or complexity one might expect in such dire circumstances until it’s too late. This portrayal strips her character of relatability and intelligence, painting her instead as naively detached. It’s difficult to remain invested in a story where the protagonist’s reactions are unconvincing or inconsistent with the gravity of their situation.

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Porcaroli’s portrayal of Sister Gwen in the film emerges as a beacon of grounded reality; her performance stands out for her pragmatic outlook amid the film’s overarching ambiguity. Sweeney’s role as Sister Cecilia showcases her acting talents beyond her physical allure. Sweeney, taking the reins as both lead actress and producer, crafts a space for herself to explore a diverse array of characters, affirming her dedication to broadening her artistic range. Sweeney’s proactive approach in shaping her career trajectory illustrates her capability and ambition in Hollywood’s competitive landscape.

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The visual composition of the movie stands as one of its best features, thanks to the cinematography of Elisha Christian. The film benefits immensely from his use of texture, capturing the nunnery’s somber atmosphere through a palette of grays and shadows that layer the setting with a tangible sense of isolation. This not only enhances the movie’s aesthetic but also contributes to its ambiance. Christian’s ability to navigate the interplay between light and darkness adds depth to each scene, crafting a visually immersive experience beyond the film’s shortcomings.

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Missed opportunities aside, the film’s conclusion stands out as a redeeming feature. In a genre where endings can often feel predictable, especially in stories involving religious themes and the innocence of children, Immaculate takes a leap in the final scene, veering away from convention to offer an unexpected twist. This bold departure provides satisfying closure by finally subverting traditional expectations and concluding on an unconventional note.

Title: Immaculate
Festival: SXSW (Headliner)
Distributor: Neon
Release date: March 22, 2024
Director: Michael Mohan
Screenwriter: Andrew Lobel
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Alvaro Morte, Simona Tabasco, Benedetta Porcaroli, Giorgio Colangeli, Dora Romano
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hr 29 min

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