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‘Immaculate’ Director Michael Mohan Channeled His Catholic Youth Group Trauma for the Film’s Unholy Imagery

It doesn’t take a theologist to see that “Immaculate” director Michael Mohan probably grew up a devout Catholic.

His new horror movie stars Sydney Sweeney as a flung-from-innocence novice nun who arrives at a Roman convent bubbling with religious fealty — only to become the vessel for an immaculate conception gone horrifically wrong. Taking advantage of the film’s on-location shoot, Mohan, who previously directed the “Euphoria” and “Anyone but You” breakout in his erotic thriller “The Voyeurs,” steeps the shocker in religious iconography that veers from the saintly to the satanic.

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“I grew up super devout Catholic,” Mohan told IndieWire. And “every Catholic person has guilt and trauma.” That’s for sure, as the Neon release mashes references to Ken Russell’s “The Devils,” Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” and even Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” in charting Sister Cecilia’s (Sweeney) psychological undoing in the process of being emblemized as a sort of second coming of Virgin Mary, while mayhem, disfigurement, and live burials play out beneath her feet at the convent. Looming over all is Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), with secrets of his own, and of course, Mother Superior (Dora Romano), doing quote-unquote God’s work.

Mohan sets the scene for unholy imagery with cinematographer Elisha Christian, production designer Adam Reamer, and the film’s costume team — red masks shrouding faceless, nefarious beings abound. So it’s no surprise that Mohan summoned his own Catholic background to conjure “Immaculate’s” most upsetting scenes.

“I was even the leader of our youth group,” Mohan said of his Catholic upbringing. “I haven’t actually talked about this, but it was the kind of youth group where we would hold these retreats. God, it sounds crazy. This is going to sound crazy. There was one weekend where we all brought in tapes and records of albums that we thought had satanic messages on them, and we burned them in effigy.”

While Mohan and screenwriter Andrew Lobel didn’t consult specific sacred texts for “Immaculate,” those formative personal memories inform the movie. In one scene, after Sister Cecilia’s immaculate pregnancy is discovered and sanctified by the clergy, a veiled and now-worshipped Sweeney silently weeps in a hallowing ceremony at the altar. It’s a moment beautiful on its surface but foreboding of worse things to come.

“I wanted the audience to understand that this meant so much to her … instead of going with something more stark, we went with something more opulent in a nod to ‘Black Narcissus’ … something that felt more moneyed and beautiful [was] a much more interesting backdrop to have a spiritual crisis against,” Mohan said of the convent that frames Sister Cecilia’s eventual breakdown. (And indeed, the film’s lavish setting is more Powell and Pressburger operatic than gritty Friedkin-esque “The Exorcist” realism.)

“There is a power that religion holds over people, and there’s a majesty to it. [With] the imagery that Elisha and I were trying to conjure up, we really didn’t want to feel that sense of gravity and that sense of performance when she first is taking her vows,” he said. “It’s [such] a monumental moment in this young woman’s life. That’s all drawn from my own experiences with religion.”

“Immaculate” opens in theaters from Neon on Friday, March 22.

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