Devote American nun Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney, HBO's 'Euphoria') is warmly welcomed when she relocates to a remote convent in Italy, but things take a disturbing turn after she is questioned about her sexual activity by the convent’s Doctor Gallo (Giampiero Judica, "All the Money in the World"), given an ultrasound, then feted by all as a miracle because the conception was “Immaculate.”

Laura's Review: B+

Take the politics and (most of) the sexual hysteria out of Ken Russell’s “The Devils” and cross it with “Rosemary’s Baby” and the 70’s exploitation film “Mark of the Devil” and you’ll have some idea of what Sydney Sweeney’s passion project, “Immaculate,” is like.  Writer Andrew Lobel imagines the potential horrors of religion embracing science while director Michael Mohan ("The Voyeurs") ladles on plenty of Gothic atmosphere.

After a creepy prologue featuring Season 2 of ‘The White Lotus’s’ Simona Tabasco as a nun suffering a gruesome fate after trying to escape the convent, we shift to the open, pure face of Cecilia arriving in Italy and not understanding the sexist comments made by Italian customs officers.  She receives an effusive welcome from Mother Superior (Dora Romano, "The Hand of God"), one which the younger, prickly Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi) translates as ‘she says you’re pretty.’  Leading Cecilia to a palatial bedroom, Isabelle seems to soften, telling her that she doesn’t have to go through her final vows that evening and no one will think the lesser of her, but the devout young girl believes her survival of a near death experience meant God had a plan for her.  I’m sure it was nothing like what lies ahead.

The Our Lady of Sorrows convent operates on extreme ends of the spectrum, accepting young novices who, in turn, tend to the elderly nuns living out their last days.  Some can be violent, and Cecilia has a scary encounter the evening after taking her final vows when she’s awakened by one snipping off a lock of her hair with dangerous looking sheers.  But they also hold secrets, as Cecilia learns putting the old woman to bed.

The prior evening, she’d been warmly greeted by Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte, Italy’s Dominic Cooper), who promised to translate the ceremony for her (which director of photography Elisha Christian ("The Night House") shoots with extreme angles to accentuate the power structure) and notes that he, too, came into religious service in an odd way, having been a biologist (red flag alert!).  After vowing obedience, poverty and chastity, Cecilia only shows one bit of hesitation - when Cardinal Franco Merola (Giorgio Colangeli) proffers his ring to be kissed.  Later that night, she’ll hear something strange from one of the convent’s baroque bathrooms and follow the sound into a chapel where a nun lies prostrate – asking if the woman is alright, the nun turns to reveal a face covered in blood red cloth mask.  Mother Superior arrives and shepherds Cecilia up to the altar where she takes a long, steel spike out of an ornate case and mimics to the new bride of Christ that this was used to pierce his palm during the crucifixion.  Remember Chekhov’s gun theory….

Sweeney is quite capable of projecting Cecilia’s innocence in what will turn out to be quite a physical and fierce performance (who knew what women in labor were capable of!), and Di Renzi, Romano and Morte are all wonderfully duplicitous villains.  Sweeney’s purity is balanced by her one friend, Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli, "Amanda"), who declares the young nuns all ‘head cases and runaways,’ her outspokenness costing her in what is perhaps the film’s most gruesome scene.   Adam Reamer's production design ("The Voyeurs," TV's 'Grimm') emphasizes the lush but remote landscape surrounding the convent, its splendid interiors lit with candles everywhere, an eerie, off-limits catacomb lying beneath.   Will Bates' ("Dumb Money") score, using such odd instrumentation as a jaunty bit of harpsichord for a daily convent routine montage, is outstanding.

While the film often feels concocted from spare parts, referencing everything from “The Shining” to “Orphan,” Mohan keeps things moving along at a good clip, so much so that the film feels trimmed of relevant detail, its biggest flaw.  The paranoia and loss of control felt so strongly in “Rosemary’s Baby” comes through loudly and clearly here, but the evil intent must be surmised as its never really made clear here, especially given its relationship to the Catholic Church.  Still, “Immaculate” is one bloody, crazy bit of filmmaking, made with notable craft.

Neon releases “Immaculate” in theaters on 3/22/24.  The film was reviewed as the opening night film of the 24th Boston Underground Film Festival.