In a horror film featuring a demonic nun, religious imagery is unavoidable. But if you're The Nun II director Michael Chaves, the religious iconography is a feature, not a bug.
“I grew up Catholic, fully confirmed and everything," Chaves said in an interview with Think Christian. “I think there's so much great history around Catholicism and the church. The Conjuring movies are always stories about faith. That's something that really appeals to me.”
The Nun II is the third film Chaves has directed in the Conjuring-verse. Beyond its thrills and chills,this is also a story of faith. Chaves’ film channels the preacher of Hebrews, who insists faith is “assurance about what we do not see.”
When we last encountered the demon Valak, it had possessed Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), a French traveler who had been serving an abbey in Romania. The abbey's nuns had been working to contain Valak after his prison was opened by bombings during World War II. Valak battled Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who used a vial of Jesus' blood to dispatch the demon . . . or so we thought. It turns out, Valak possessed Maurice, who set off at the end of the film for parts unknown.
When The Nun II opens, Sister Irene is once again in a convent, her adventures in Romania already the stuff of legend among the other nuns. The Vatican summons her to investigate a series of demonic murders stretching from Romania to France. Irene recognizes her old nemesis must be back and sets off with Sister Debra (Storm Reid), a novitiate, in tow.
Sister Debra confesses she struggles with her faith, particularly the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation—that in the Eucharist meal, the bread and wine physically transform into Jesus' body and blood. Debra accompanies Irene because she wants to learn how to have faith. Irene breaks the news to her that there's no special knowledge that comes with being a nun, no extra miracle or red phone to Heaven's throne room. “Belief makes it real,” she counsels her young novitiate.
In our interview, Chaves said, “I wanted to tell a story about faith and Debra's story really has that. Debra's story—being a novitiate and having these big questions, not believing a core concept of the Catholic faith, the blessing of the wine—that was a really powerful idea.” (You can watch the full interview with Chaves below.)
Sister Debra's plight is familiar to anyone who's pursued faith in Jesus. The Gospels are filled with spectacular miracles—feeding a crowd of thousands from one boy's simple lunch, giving sight to the blind, healing terminal diseases, and, yes, exorcizing demons. Lots of demons. But our modern world seems starved for miracles. We might be forgiven if, like Sister Debra, we wonder if any of it is real.
Our modern world seems starved for miracles.
In that way, we're not unlike Gideon, who was called to liberate God's people from the oppression of Midian. When God first selects him, Gideon is threshing wheat in a winepress so that the Midianites won't take the food from him and his family. When God's angelic messenger calls him a "mighty warrior," Gideon isn't blind to the irony. He pushes back. "Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
Like Sister Debra, like us, Gideon wondered what happened to the God who did all these fancy miracles. What did that God have to do with Gideon's ordinary, oppressed life, where he could only feed his family by working in hiding? So, too, Sister Debra wonders about God's goodness and power as she and Irene discover the demon Valak's purpose. The demon seeks a holy relic that will give it unimaginable power. That relic is the eyes of St. Lucie, the patron saint of sight. The demon's search has led it—still possessing Maurice—to a French boarding school that was once a monastic winery. Maurice has found work as a groundskeeper, where Bloquet portrays him as a kind and caring man unaware of his demonic burden.
The Conjuring-verse franchise is built around horrific visuals, from the double clap and Annabelle doll of The Conjuring to the demonic nun who was practically a cameo in The Conjuring II before earning these spin-offs. The Nun II doesn't change the formula. Several of the tableaus that Chaves and his filmmaking team create are genuinely scary, even as they amplify the film's subtle message about faith. Chaves chose a real portrait of St. Lucie to feature, one in which the saint offers a platter to the viewer. On the plate are her eyes; her face bears only vacant holes. The image, to which the film returns again and again, is disturbing, to say the least. But the longer we (and the characters in the film) sit with it, the more it becomes an invitation. Might the only way to overcome this great evil be to see with Saint Lucie’s eyes, the eyes of faith?
That passage in Hebrews insists that faith is a way of seeing the world. It's the “assurance” of what we don't see. In other words, while we live in a world of injustice, oppression, bigotry, and more, to live by faith is to insist that these evils that are so obvious to our senses are not the final truth. Rather, we believe that God is faithful to the promises God made to our spiritual ancestors. Like Gideon, we look around at the world and think, “Where is God? All I see are demonic forces of oppression.” Perhaps we, too, need the eyes of Saint Lucie, eyes that see by faith. Eyes that can see where God is present—among the oppressed and marginalized and among the people of God, gathered around a simple meal of bread and wine.