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Woke Libs Rejoice! ‘Immaculate’ Really IS About Abortion.

As a pregnant nun forced to give birth, Sydney Sweeney cements her status as the most self-aware star of the moment.

Promotional still

Some guys just can’t handle boobs. Over the past few weeks, Sydney Sweeney has become a weird obsession for right-wing commenters whose names I hope you don’t spend enough time online to recognize. Adult men, all awooga like they’d just discovered what happens if you type 60065 on a calculator, have drafted Sweeney’s breasts into their culture war, contending that the actor’s figure has, by reasserting the all-american bosom, somehow “killed woke.” 

The argument, to use a generous term, is that Sweeney’s prominent bust supposedly proves that she’s a real woman, not like those androgynous (and therefore undesirable) leftists or, of course, trans women, all of whom unmanly males pretend are attractive only to make an ideological point. Like Gothic cathedrals and Renaissance paintings, Sweeney’s proportions demonstrate that there is indeed a universal standard of beauty, a discovery that causes cultural relativists to crumble into dust. 

Never mind that breasts are—quite famously!—a very easy secondary sexual characteristic to “fake.” In fact, that was the issue the last time a young woman’s chest became such a fraught ideological battleground. Remember how the disputed authenticity of Britney Spears’s breasts was a matter of heated public debate when she was still a teen, the subtext being that Britney was plastic, fake, like her music and her alleged implants?

So yeah, breasts are always going to be the locus of female identity for a certain kind of perv, who will assign to them whatever significance seems pertinent at the time. Still, these discussions do provide an insight into the cultural preoccupations of the moment. As does the response to Sweeney’s new film, Immaculate, which is about a nun who becomes pregnant without having sex and has predictably set off some social media reactionaries in regrettably quotable ways. One rant was so widely mocked that the film’s distributor Neon (which I think of as “the real movie fan’s A24”) got in on the fun.

That’s pretty funny! And a little depressing, because such is the era of total culture war that everything is reduced to its ideological significance. Sweeney herself threatens to disappear, a symbol to be battled over two warring camps, never mind that only one side really seems to be fighting (or that she's one of the producers who got the movie made). So it’s good to see the actor speak for herself in the self-aware marketing campaign for Immaculate, which includes a clip of her watching the film with a pair of “real, bonafide pastors” (not priests or nuns though, eh?) and this video of her reading an Old Testament passage about divinely instigated bear maulings

Thing is, though, you can’t really level the “it’s just a movie” counter argument against the aggrieved believers here, because Immaculate, in its broadly cineplexy way, really is about a war over Sweeney’s body. Horror films being where we discuss the unspeakable, it’s almost too perfect that the woman with the most over-scrutinized anatomy in Hollywood right now should star in a film where wicked religious figures commandeer her as an incubator for their messiah, just two years after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision legalized forced birth in the U.S. 

Sweeney and Immaculate director Michael Mohan already showed their willingness to get meta with her budding celebrity in their first movie together, 2021's The Voyeurs. That was a self-consciously ridiculous erotic thriller doused in a stylish overabundance of ocular imagery—Sweeney even plays an optometrist, because eyes. But it also toyed with Sweeney’s sex-symbol status by making the hot girl everyone wanted to see naked into the peeping Tom, and then punishing those who’d dare spy on her to return. Your life will never be the same after you’ve heard Sweeney’s monotone vocal fry applied to the line "a vibrator is not connected to a soul." 

If anything the metaphors fall in place all too easily with the new film, as though Immaculate was designed as a final project for a cultural studies seminar. But it’s to the movie's credit that it doesn’t belabor its real world parallels. Yes, it’s a young woman struggling with a pregnancy she isn’t even responsible for, but it’s mostly a horror movie with a hot young star that kids will turn out for. A $5.3 million opening weekend ain’t exactly Dune numbers, but it’s not like critically acclaimed abortion-centered dramas Never Rarely Sometimes Always or Happening had a shot at that box office.

On to the movie itself. Sweeney is Cecilia, a young Detroiter who travels to a picturesque convent in rural Italy with a hard-shell suitcase (what year is this?) and not even a rudimentary grasp of Italian. After leering immigration officers give this helpless lamb the once-over, she meets her sponsor, Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), takes her vows, and settles into her new home, where she cares for aged nuns, some dying, some lost to dementia.

Cecilia’s befriended by Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), an agnostic who’s taken the veil just to get away from men and who shares her sardonic perspective on how adeptly Father Sal recruits “wounded birds” for the convent. (To give you a sense of Immaculate’s subtlety, one of its big fake-out jump-scares comes when a bird flies into Cecilia’s window, then falls to the sill, yes, wounded.) 

Another young nun, Sister Mary, is less welcoming. When the Mother Superior (Dora Romano) gushes poetically about Cecilia at length upon first meeting her, Mary translates it brusquely as “She says you’re pretty.” Andrew Lobel’s script does have its moments. 

Mary’s attitude is just one of the many early signs that All Is Not As It Seems at the convent. Everyone but her seems maybe a tad too excited to meet the new nun. One of the aged sisters has crosses burnt into her soles. Father Sal tells Cecilia he used to be a biologist in a way that seems certain to have future plot relevance. 

Oh, and also, the movie begins with a quartet of red-veiled nuns burying a young novice alive when she tries to escape the convent at night. Big red flag there, ladies.

Then Cecilia unexpectedly vomits, something that women in movies only do when they’re pregnant. The unholy trinity of men who preside over the convent—the cardinal, the doctor, and Father Sal—grill her about her chastity and determine that her fetus has been “conceived without sin.” (I already went into this here, but again, that phrase is NOT about a fuck-free impregnation; it refers specifically to Jesus’s mother Mary being born without Original Sin—why don’t the religious nuts ever get mad about this stuff?)  Soon Cecilia is dolled up as the Blessed Virgin 2.0, all but worshiped by the elder nuns, and resented by many of her contemporaries. What could go wrong?

Immaculate isn’t always sure whether it’s here for the brooding atmospherics or the Dolby-amped gotcha startles. There’s plenty of ace gore (moments of truly medieval torture, closeups of bashed faces, a showcase of blood-soaked sheets) and the catacombs Cecilia is warned not to enter come to play a prominent role. But the mood isn’t nearly as goth as it could be. Mohan doesn’t quite have a feel for the creepiness of cinematic Euro-Catholicism or that tradition of the innocent American virgin in the clutches of the evil priest-ridden Old World. 

And as nunsploitation goes, this is tame stuff. Not for Mohan the lurid fantasies of a Ken Russell or a Jess Franco, or the perverse power struggles of Paul Verhoeven’s more recent Benedetta. The naughtiest Immaculate gets is when the young sisters lounge about bathing in nothing but white robes, the nun equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest. Sweeney’s body is largely (and pointedly) withheld from the viewer, placing more emphasis on her highly expressive face.

Sweeney’s large, round eyes are excellent for wavering between credulity and wariness, as she showed in Reality, where she played convicted classified info leaker Reality Winner. And as in The Voyeurs, Sweeney excels as playing the innocent who turns the avenger. Of course Cecilia is more resilient than she appears. And for those of you who like to debate whether the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house, a crucifix, a rosary, and one of the nails that pinned Christ to the cross all prove excellent murder weapons here. 

Immaculate is just silly fun for most of the way, but its final five minutes—in which Sweeney, bloodied and in labor, unleashes a fury we didn’t know she had in her—seem to belong to a much better film. Or maybe they don’t feel like they belong to a film at all. Maybe this is just free-floating female rage distilled into a single moment by an actor who gets that this is her zeit and she is the damn geist. If you wanted to borrow a religious term, you might even call it iconic.


Immaculate is now playing in area theaters.

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