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A young woman dressed as a nun staring at the camera.

Immaculate: how a nunsploitation film tunes into women’s anger over misogyny and oppression

Warning: this article contains spoilers

Camp, provocative and often kitsch, the “nunsploitation” subgenre rose to prominence in 1970s European cinema. Exemplifying this trend were films including Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) – which received an “X” (18) rating in the UK and the US due to its explicit sexual and violent scenes – and pornographic Italian films Images in a Convent (Joe D'Amato, 1979) and The Nun and the Devil (Domenico Paolella, 1973).

Many film critics have been labelling Immaculate, the new horror film from Michael Mohan (The Voyeurs, 2021), as nunsploitation, but I believe it offers a greater level of sophistication than this label suggests, reflecting recent political events in America that have profoundly affected women’s freedoms when it comes to their own bodies.

The film acknowledges the prevalent cinematic stereotype of the “sexy nun”. When Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) is initially introduced, she is en route to Italy from her previous post in Michigan. She draws the attention of two male border agents who make sexist comments in Italian. Despite not understanding the language, Cecilia senses their meaning. This experience reflects the discomfort many women feel when being harassed or objectified in public spaces.

This early scene hints at the film’s potential to challenge expectations associated with nunsploitation films and address more culturally relevant themes. With lead actress Sydney Sweeney also serving as a producer, the film gains a unique feminist perspective that interrogates the disturbing and increasingly relevant topic of women’s bodily autonomy – a woman’s power and agency over her own body.

Sweeney plays Sister Cecilia, a devout young woman who is invited to take her vows at an Italian countryside convent dedicated to caring for elderly nuns in their final years. Cecilia is summoned to a meeting with the convent’s leaders and asked to confirm that she has honoured her vow of chastity.

A subsequent scan reveals her unexpected pregnancy. While the nuns view this as a miracle heralding the second coming of Christ, a sequence of unsettling nightmares and mysterious events hints at a darker force at work.

From satanic cults in Rosemary’s Baby to murderous offspring in Prevenge, numerous films have shown that horror can be a powerful genre for exploring anxieties surrounding motherhood. Immaculate exemplifies this, fitting into what journalist Jordan Crucchiola describes as “pregnancy horror”“.

Reproductive rites

The film speaks to ongoing concerns about women’s reproductive rights. In 2022 the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the pivotal 1973 ruling that established women’s constitutional right to abortion. Since then, 14 states have implemented near-total abortion bans.

The overturning of Roe v Wade reflects the growing influence of conservative religious groups on political agendas. Even the self-proclaimed misogynist influencer Andrew Tate has used religious rhetoric to spread his extremist ideology.

A young woman in red habit and white headdress being held down on a table by two older women.
A scene from The Handmaid’s Tale. George Kraychyk/Hulu

Just as Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale warned, when far-right politics, male dominance and religious beliefs align, women’s bodies become state property and are subjected to inhumane restrictions.

The shadow of post-Roe America looms over Immaculate. The fact that Cecilia – the sole American nun in the film – finds herself ensnared in an oppressive religious institution controlled by a dangerous patriarch intent on exploiting women’s bodies, speaks volumes.

The nuns insist on treating the pregnant Cecilia like a religious idol, at one point even dressing her to resemble the Virgin Mary. A poignant close-up shot reveals Cecilia’s inner turmoil as she stands motionless, teary-eyed and trapped in circumstances she never consented to.

Despite being worshipped, Cecilia is denied access to proper medical care. She resorts to faking a miscarriage in the hope of being taken to a hospital. Reflecting the sentiments of the post-Roe landscape, the wellbeing of Cecilia’s unborn child is prioritised over her own.

Women’s bodies and Hollywood

Sweeney’s role in Immaculate forms a dialogue with her Hollywood star image, especially in light of her remarks in interviews about how her body is perceived by the public.

In a recent sit-down with Variety, she reflected on the media’s tendency to objectify her physique, stating: "People feel … free to speak about me in whatever way they want, because they believe that I’ve signed my life away. That I’m not on a human level any more, because I’m an actor”.

Three nuns in a religious building, one dressed as the Vrigin Mary.
Sweeney’s character dressed as the Virgin Mary. Black Bear Films / Neon

Canada’s National Post recently ran a story doing just that, asking: “Are Sydney Sweeney’s breasts double-D harbingers of the death of woke?”.

The themes of bodily autonomy and ownership of women’s bodies explored in Immaculate extend beyond reproductive rights. They also resonate in celebrity culture, where women in the public eye have long battled sexual objectification and intrusive scrutiny of their physical appearances.

From her breakthrough role in Euphoria to her powerful leading role in Immaculate, Sweeney has proved herself to be a daring and dynamic actress who deserves to be praised for her talent rather than objectified for her looks.

Cecilia fights back against the patriarchal and religious forces attempting to dictate her bodily autonomy. The film’s climactic act is a bloody and visceral outpouring of female rage. Cecilia’s cries convey not only her personal anguish but resonate as a wider expression of women’s collective anger.

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