Venice 2021 review: Immaculate (Monica Stan & George Chiper-Lillemark)

“Immaculate would likely not have been nearly as successful had it not featured a truly impressive performance by Ana Dumitraşcu.”

As a theme that has inspired artists across every conceivable medium for about as long as stories have been told, addiction remains a very difficult subject and one that often courts controversy, whether it be for the content of these specific stories or the artistic approach taken when handling them. However, when it is done well there are few categories of film that leave more of an impression, especially since we tend to see tragic stories of drug or alcohol abuse encompassing the lives of ordinary individuals and the people around them. Regardless of the substance involved, these films tend to strike a raw nerve in the general population, who often find themselves investing heavily in these stories. Immaculate is a poignant drama from directors Monica Stan and George Chiper-Lillemark, two young filmmakers working within their native Romania’s steadily growing industry, itself still currently undergoing its own process of revolutionizing cinema through the Romanian New Wave, to which Immaculate is a worthy entry. The story of a young heroin addict who collapses into her obsession, but finds her way into a rehabilitation center before entirely allowing the drugs to envelop her existence, is fertile ground for a deep and uncommonly profound exploration of the human condition, one that combines elements of psychological thriller and addiction drama to reveal new layers to the conditions endured by many addicts on their long and arduous path to recovery.

Immaculate approaches the austere subject matter in a unique way, filtering it through the lens of a custodial drama, where the rehabilitation centre that occupies the majority of the film is presented as a terrifying entity, a labyrinth of unfamiliar people and unprecedented procedures that seeks to unsettle the protagonist into compliance. It certainly doesn’t villainize the process that these institutions take towards helping their patients overcome their addiction, but instead frames it through the main character’s terrified perspective, showing how she has to endure an entirely new environment while dealing with withdrawal symptoms and the presence of shadowy figures that may be directly involved with her ex-boyfriend who kickstarted her addiction in the first place. We watch as the directors construct a story of a young woman navigating hostile territory, working through an inescapable maze of grotesque faces that seek to manipulate the new addition to their group to do their bidding and satiate their desires, regardless of how morally ambiguous they may be. Immaculate is not the ethereal, motivational drama about overcoming addiction we may be accustomed to seeing, instead evolving into a brutal and heart-wrenching depiction of the recovery process which proves how overcoming addiction is far from a linear course, and that it is filled with challenging moments that can be quite disturbing to watch.

As striking as the premise and general direction of the film in its representation of addiction may be, Immaculate would likely not have been nearly as successful had it not featured a truly impressive performance by Ana Dumitraşcu. She somehow manages to weave together one of the most incredibly insightful examinations of addiction recently committed to film in her portrayal of Daria, a wayward young woman who finds herself in a challenging situation when she decides to confront her addiction before it becomes too intense. She is immersed in a world where she finds herself constantly provoked and manipulated by her fellow patients, and one from which there is seemingly no escape, as her road to recovery appears endless. This is a delicate but haunting performance, one where the smallest details carry the most sincere understanding of the human condition, often contrasted with excursions into the darker side of these institutions. Whether it be Dumitraşcu’s remarkable expressivity (which is fascinating, considering how much of her performance entailed having the silent moments resound the most) or the fact that the camera always lingers for a fraction too long, capturing the most vulnerable moments in the development of the character, this film constructs itself around her staggering performance. Each expression and subtle movement by the actress is showcased in such vivid detail, making for a truly captivating and thoroughly heartbreaking performance that is certainly one of the best of the year, considering its depth and Dumitraşcu’s willingness to bare her soul in the process of finding this character and telling her story.

Immaculate is a film about healing both the mind and the body in tandem, especially when someone has grown accustomed to distracting from reality through substance abuse. This is not an easy film to watch in any way – the directors, despite this being a directorial debut for both of them, show an assured authorial vision when it comes to presenting us with this uncomfortable but powerful story of overcoming addiction. There is a lingering sadness between these extraordinarily bleak moments, which investigate both the mental and physical consequences of addiction, and the desperation that arises in situations where addicts struggle to come to terms with the fact that the path to sobriety is rarely as simple as it would appear. Every moment in this film is essential, since they all reveal intimate details of the heartbreaking challenges faced by these patients, with the directors ensuring that it reflects the reality many addicts endure when trying to work through the obstacles often associated with recovery. In its combination of striking directorial decisions, documentary-style realism, a few incredible performances and its fervent honesty, Immaculate is a series of deep meditations on the psychology of recovery. It is both a shocking cautionary tale and a powerful manifesto on overcoming addiction that never veers towards becoming overwrought and instead keeps the story simple, which only helps in conveying the vital message that resides at the heart of this film.