Review: The Monk / Cert: 15 / Director: Dominik Moll / Screenplay: Dominik Moll, Anne-Louise Trividic / Starring: Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois, Josephine Japy, Sergi Lopez / Release Date: August 20th
Based on Matthew Gregory Lewis’ swiftly written and now largely forgotten 18th century Gothic novel, Dominik Moll’s sumptuous, atmospheric subtitled adaptation of The Monk is likely to be too stately and mannered for popular modern tastes. Its themes of satanic seduction, religious contradiction, magic and repentance may evoke vague memories of The Exorcist and The Devils with a bit of In the Name of the Rose thrown in for good measure but The Monk is something altogether subtler and in many ways much more elegant.
Vincent Cassel plays respected but troubled Capucin monk Ambrosio who, whilst dispensing finely worded judgment on the human sins of others, is himself deeply troubled by his own sexual desires and feverish dreams. Valerio, apparently hideously scarred by the fire which killed his family years earlier, his features hidden behind a creepy wooden mask, arrives at Ambrosio’s monastery in Madrid seeking solitude. But Valerio is so much more than just a victim; amongst other secrets it seems that Valerio is also an emissary of Satan sent to test Ambrosio’s mettle and to lure him into the darkness of his own soul.
We’re not exactly in classic horror movie territory here and indeed it’s The Monk’s intention to intrigue and unsettle rather than terrify its audience. The film crawls with psychological tension and throws in the odd shimmering apparition and creeping insect for a few more traditional thrills but the film’s more concerned with exploring religious hypocrisy and single-minded purposefulness than grossing out its audience. But then that’s not the story The Monk is here to tell. Director and co-writer Moll has stripped away many of the subplots and divergences of the novel, concentrating on depicting Ambrosio’s inevitable fall from grace and his ultimate desperate Faustian attempt to save himself from himself. Ambrosio’s fate is sealed almost from the start of the film; abandoned at the monastery as a new born baby he’s pecked by crows, has an ominous birthmark - and the first time we see him as an adult he’s listening to confessions of the shocking sexual misdeeds of one of his penitents. There’s a darkness in and around Ambrosio which sets him up as an easy target for satanic seduction.
The Monk treads familiar ground - stories of ‘men of the cloth’ succumbing to the sins of the flesh have been done before and, arguably, done better - but it’s Moll’s vision which makes The Monk more striking than it might otherwise have been. It’s beautifully filmed - this is genuinely Gothic stuff with Moll contrasting bright, sunny Spanish exteriors with the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of the monastery itself - and with a standout, solid performance from Cassell as Ambrosio. But there’s a definite sense of deja vu in its Good vs. Evil storyline and its realization. Even if there’s really nothing new going on here, what we’ve got is evocative and atmospheric enough to make The Monk a worthwhile and hauntingly memorable effort.
Special Features: None