• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t noticed, but nude scenes and sex scenes in movies have been in sharp decline for a while now. Even in prestige television, we’ve seen considerably fewer nude scenes and sex scenes ever since “Game of Thrones” (the first one) toned it down. Why is this a trend? Well, there are a number of possible reasons.

First of all, the #MeToo movement, cancel culture, leaked nude photos, fake nude photos, several lawsuits, and a cascade of tabloid drama all have the mainstream public looking askance at nude scenes and sex scenes. Nowadays, there’s always the implicit question of whether actors are being coerced or mistreated in the process of doing nude scenes or sex scenes. Case in point: After Jennifer Lawrence’s eye-popping nude scene in No Hard Feelings — a movie she exec-produced! — Lawrence herself had to publicly swear up and down that she was totally fine with it, no hesitations or regrets, and so on.

Luckily, the world and the industry are changing with the times. While a select few filmmakers are still against the practice, intimacy coordinators have been widely used for quite some time now. They’ve already done so much to make sure nude scenes, sex scenes, and even rape scenes are produced in ethical ways that protect the safety and dignity of the cast without compromising the quality of the end product.

So what else could be a possible cause? Well, there’s the unavoidable pressure to make four-quadrant films that appeal to the widest possible demographic while offending the least number of people. But even more than that, so many blockbusters nowadays are based on comics and video games and other movies and media that the adult audience loved in their youth. We don’t want any bedroom antics clashing with our fond childhood memories, do we?

It’s true that not every story or movie will need sex, but do we really need every character to be totally chaste? We could learn so much about our favorite characters if we knew what got them hot, what makes them vulnerable, how they treat their (prospective and/or current and/or former) romantic and sexual partners, and so on.

We’re talking about an intrinsic factor of human psychology and biology here. So much of our identity and function as human beings are tied up in sexual urges. It doesn’t feel right that so much of our media should be totally sexless except for fringe arthouse films and hardcore porn. As Linda Williams so aptly put it, “sex is too important to be left to the pornographers.”

And then there’s Sydney Sweeney.

As an actor and a producer, Sweeney has built her entire brand on owning her sexuality. She’s never shied away from nude scenes or sex scenes — quite the contrary, she’s consistently used them as a means of making her characters more developed. Even in the godawful Madame Web (alongside Dakota Johnson, another actor known for using her femininity and sexuality as a potent weapon), Sweeney looked like a schoolgirl sex fantasy and acted like the only semi-competent teenage character in the cast!

In her brief career to date, Sweeney has already done so much to challenge the notion of the stereotypical blonde. She’s done her damnedest at every opportunity to show that looking like a porn star and baring all onscreen can’t and shouldn’t be barriers to a successful career as an accomplished mainstream actor. If anything, it’s like she’s trying to normalize sex and nudity as means of developing characters, telling a story, and generally living as a human being.

So here we are with Immaculate, in which producer Sweeney plays a nun. And with the exception of Sweeney, pretty much everybody on the writing/directing/producing side is male. Wait, what the fuck?

We lay our scene in Italy, where a convent has been built for the specific purpose of tending to older nuns in their final days. So our setting is a centuries-old building filled with terminally ill women who’ve irretrievably lost their mental faculties in their all-consuming service to the Lord. Yeah, we’re off to a great start.

Sweeney plays Sister Cecilia, a young woman who’s pretty much spent her entire life working to be a nun ever since a death experience when she was a child. (No, not a near-death experience — she was literally dead for seven minutes.) After her parish in the American Midwest shut down, Cecilia was hand-picked by Father Sal Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte) to come to Italy and be a nursing assistant for a bunch of elderly nuns.

I need hardly add that Cecilia is a younger nun working in one of the most exclusive and arduous convents in the Catholic Church, and she barely speaks a word of Italian. So she’s already in over her head. And that’s before the big first-act turning point, when the lifelong virgin Cecilia has somehow gotten pregnant. This development is quickly heralded as a miracle and we’re off to the races.

To get this out of the way, the big reveal is not the point. There’s a good chance you’ve already guessed what the big reveal is, based entirely on the premise. When we hear about Father Sal’s life before he joined the priesthood — and this exposition comes less than fifteen minutes in! — anyone with two functioning brain cells will immediately know precisely what happened, who’s responsible, and where we’re going.

This is definitely one of those times when the destination is far less important than the journey.

For one thing, the “horror” aspect is perfectly fine. Yes, we get some serviceable jump scares here and there, and the atmosphere throughout is fantastic. I need hardly add that the basic premise of a biologically impossible pregnancy lends itself to all manner of gruesome body horror shenanigans. In particular, the climax — when Cecilia is due to give birth — is supremely fucked-up and bloody. It’s Sydney Sweeney exploring the process of pregnancy and childbirth — a notably different aspect of feminine sexuality compared to what she’s typically called upon to portray.

But more than that, we’ve got the psychological horror. It bears remembering that we’re talking about a pregnant nun here — between her physical condition and her placement in the oppressive system of the Catholic Church, it’s hard to imagine a more potentially vulnerable protagonist. And it’s not like Cecilia doesn’t have good reason to be paranoid all the time.

Imagine how many other nuns would be insurmountably jealous of the first immaculate conception since Mary herself. Especially since Cecilia herself neither wanted nor asked to be in this position. Moreover, the convent leadership and medical staff are resolutely insistent that Cecilia should not leave the convent and she must NEVER be taken to a proper hospital under any circumstances. Given this peculiar behavior under the biologically impossible circumstances, think about how this whole situation would be a strenuous test of faith for Cecilia and the other nuns.

What happens if everyone goes along with all of this? What happens to the ones who don’t? For that matter, what’s the kid supposed to do after he’s born, and what the hell is Cecilia supposed to do with the rest of her life after giving birth?

There’s one line early in the third act: To paraphrase, a priest asks “If this isn’t God’s work, why doesn’t God stop it?” That one line is worth the whole movie five times over. That one question at once perfectly sums up why so much suffering and corruption is justified under organized religion, and why so many have turned away from organized religion entirely.

Put it all together and the film becomes an allegory against corruption and abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church. Given the premise, we specifically have an allegory about the Church’s track record with forced births, misogyny, railing against abortion and birth control, etc. It’s not even a new thing either, look it up.

Granted, it’s tough to take the allegory seriously when it’s taken to such heightened extremes. Even so, the film does ask legitimate questions about bodily autonomy, whether free will exists, what sacrifices are acceptable against a (purported) greater good, whether religious leaders should be considered as infallible as the deities they claim to represent, and so on. It certainly helps that while the rest of the film around her is heightened, Sweeney does a remarkable job of playing a grounded and sympathetic protagonist who’s proactive — albeit limited — in attempting to affect her own rescue.

On a final miscellaneous note, I’m honestly relieved to say that the potential “nunsploitation” factor was quite muted. There was a perilous risk of “male gaze” ruining this one, especially since — again — the creative team behind this one was almost exclusively male. Luckily, it turns out Director Michael Mohan was hand-picked for the job by Sweeney herself. This whole production was built around her, and the end result is a film more focused on systemic oppression and psychological torture, rather than sacrilegious T&A. We get a couple of bathing scenes, sure, but they’re tastefully handled. In fact, one of them is more focused on traditional Catholic shame, which works well in context.

Overall, Immaculate gives the impression of a film that was made and marketed as a horror because nobody knew what other box to put it under. The psychological terror, the gut-churning body horror, the moral/ethical/religious conundrums, and the protagonist herself are all far more fascinating than the jump scares, the central mystery, or any of the antagonists as characters in and of themselves. I’ll readily grant that at 90 minutes, the film is exactly as long as it should’ve been. Any shorter, and none of these ideas would’ve been done justice. Any longer and no audience could’ve sustained it.

For many obvious reasons, this is not a film for the light-hearted or easily offended. It’s definitely worth checking out, but waiting for home video might be the smart call.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, Happy Easter to all who celebrate!

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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