The Monk Review

It is night time, rain is pouring down and thunder roars overhead. An abandoned baby with a distinctive birthmark is left on the steps of a monastery just outside of Madrid in the 17th century. Gargoyles peer out from the crumbling stonework as the crows caw and begin to circle.

So far, so suitably gothic.

This child is taken in by the monks and grows up to be Ambrosio, played by esteemed French actor, Vincent Cassel. Ambrosio is effectively the David Beckham of Roman Catholicism, with his celebrity status drawing devout fans from all over the place to confess their sins, have their demons exorcised and listen to his passionate sermons that cause young girls to feint.

When it comes to faith, Ambrosio is the chosen one.

However, as you might expect of someone who’s been shut away in a monastery for forty years, something inside our holy man is starting to fray.

When a masked visitor comes to the monastery seeking sanctuary, unwilling to reveal his disfigured face due to some horrific burns, Ambrosio overrides his fellow monks’ concerns and decides to take this traveller in.

Suspicions that the mysterious figure is in the employ of Satan are aroused when he is revealed to be a rather less than disfigured attractive young woman who claims to be an obsessive follower of Ambrosio.

The arrival of the virginal Antonia, a girl from the city seeking council on behalf of her sick mother, doesn’t help Ambrosio’s growing internal torment any as her innocence and beauty conflicting him with thoughts of redemption as well as desire.

Trying to describe The Monk does director Dominik Moll’s film a disservice. While it’s an adaptation from Matthew Gregory’s Lewis’ one time banned novel from 1796, the subject matter feels familiar and somewhat reminiscent of an earlier era of cinema.

This extends to antiquated camera techniques such as negative exposure and iris transitions, which are a knowing nod to early European surrealist filmmakers but jar against the predominantly composed and unobtrusive framing.

The almost painterly use of composition compliments the lofty dialogue, while the sun-drenched humidity of the exteriors provide narrative and visual counterpoints to the shadowy confines of the monastery.

Cassel excels as the brooding Ambrosio, bringing a sincere intensity that the very serious nature of this subject requires. And the beard and brown robe combo not only accentuate Monica Bellucci’s lesser half’s on screen presence, but if George Lucas is ever looking to cast a French jedi then Cassel should be first in line.

The Monk is unlikely to cause the stir that Lewis’ novel did in eighteenth century English society, with the previously shocking blasphemy and immorality having long since been consigned to our unenlightened past.

Moll has artfully woven this period piece together though, distinguished most by The Monk’s undertones of repressed desires along with its blurring of morality and the subconscious.

Richard Buxton

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Dates ‘n stuff

April 2012