The Monk (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor Metrodome) Running Time: 96 minutes approx.
In 17th century Madrid, a monk named Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), who was abandoned as a baby at a monastery and raised by capuchin Monks, is one of the most revered and respected holy men due to his resolute devotion to his faith and his impenetrable virtue. When Ambrosio takes in a young man who wears a mask to hide severe facial burns, an unusual and sinister mood takes over the monastery, forcing Ambrosio to face temptation for the first time in his life.
Admittedly the above synopsis is a little glib as this film is based on the controversial 1796 Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, with a healthy dose of pruning applied to the sprawling story to fit into the ninety-six minutes director Dominik Moll allotted for this movie adaptation. Lewis’s original novel – written before he was even twenty years-old, which is an epic tome which drew much criticism, as it did praise, not just for its scathing critique of the Catholic Church but for its depictions of a multiple of sins, including rape, incest, demonic pacts, deception and murder – only a few of these make it to this big screen retelling, you’ll be pleased to hear, or not if you are a fan of the book.
As much as Moll had to decide what to leave in or omit from the source material, there must have also been much deliberation as how to adapt the material he was left with, since the novel covers much ground. Therefore our near divine protagonist is subject to just two major temptations to challenge his devotion to the man upstairs. First is in the mysterious masked stranger, Valerio, who constantly asks about the moral necessities of hiding the truth. Initially this question receives short shrift from the moral monk but Valerio’s mystique is too much to bear and eventually reveals himself to be not a burned monstrosity but an attractive young woman named Matilda (Déborah François). Ambrosio immediately expels Matilda for her deception but after being stung by a poisonous bug, she visits him in the night and heals him by sucking out the poison, during which he hallucinates some sucking of a different kind from this mysterious maiden as well some other usually forbidden physical delights – or did he?
Providing similar temptations is the veiled subject of Ambrosio’s recurring dreams in which a woman clad in red is seen praying in the sun but each time he reaches out to her, he is unable to touch her. A clue to this distant damsel’s identity comes in the form of a beautiful young girl named Antonio (Joséphine Japy), who found herself drifting from Ambrosio’s sermons after falling in love with a rich young suitor. Having tasted the pleasures of the flesh with Matlda, Ambrosio wants more and Antoinio is ripe for the picking in his eyes but he must resist. However Matilda has a few, shall we say, “devilish” tricks up her sleeve to help Ambrosio get what he wants.
Religion is always going to be a contentious issue for any artist to cover and ambivalence is apparently not an option when it comes to having an opinion on it. Needless to say theologians were not impressed with both novel and film, taking it as a personal attack on them. Whether Lewis was on the attack when he wrote his novel may never be known but Moll’s film is not an exercise in judgement, seeking to ask the question of “what is sin?” using the most devout of men as a conduit to show that simple human feelings and urges cannot be suppressed all the time. Perhaps with the current scandals involving Catholic priests the timing of this tale to resurface in cinematic form is a little too close for comfort for the Catholic Church. This may again explain the abridged delivery of the story.
There is a very purveying unsettling mood throughout the film which is matched by the gorgeous photography and brooding musical score. Much of the film takes place in darkness which is apropos to the grim realities of the story, yet it is rich with vibrant colours and startling compositions of exquisite gothic beauty. Perhaps not a horror or a chiller in the truest sense, an impending sense of dread is regularly present from scene to scene. The inspired casting of Vincent Cassel as Ambrosio provides the film with its greatest asset; his intense essaying of the austere and flawed monk being compromised between steely devotion and unbridled delusional paranoia ranks among his most riveting performances. As the two women in Ambrosio’s life, Déborah François and Joséphine Japy, both embody and wholly embrace the opposite ends of the feminine spectrum their character represent. A special mention is due also to Catherine Mouchet as Anonio’s mother, who brings matriarchal gravitas to what is a small but pivotal role.
The Monk can be measured by what it achieves as much as what it doesn’t achieve. It certainly could have been much more, the ninety-six minute running time threatening to reduce this to akin to a sample chapter for a bigger work. Lewis’s novel would probably require the multi movie treatment a’la Lord Of The Rings to do it full justice but Moll’s film is a superbly atmospheric and visually arresting way to introduce viewers to this regarded work while cementing the positions and reputations of both Cassell and Moll in modern French cinema.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Rating – *** ½
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