Dominik Moll’s The Monk, a French language version of Matthew Lewis’s classic gothic novel set in the 17th century, is a chilling supernatural tale full of striking imagery and significant symbolism. Starring Vincent Cassel (La Haine, Black Swan) as a respected Capuchin monk, the film follows his gradual descent into sin and examines the concepts of punishment, evil, and the Devil Himself.
Left on the steps of a monastery when he was a baby, Friar Ambrosio (Cassel) grows up into a holy and revered member of the church, knowing no other life. A charismatic and inspiring preacher, people travel for miles to hear his sermons. One day, a strange new novice named Valerio enters the monastery. Claiming to have lost his entire family and been hideously burned in a house fire, Valerio constantly wears a mask and appears to have healing powers. Ambrosio takes an interest in the young novice, but soon discovers that Valerio harbours a shocking secret which sparks Ambrosio’s descent into immorality.
Meanwhile, Ambrosio also discovers that a nun has broken her vows and become pregnant. She begs him not to tell anyone else and to let her escape, but Ambrosio refuses, revealing her secret to the Abbess (Geraldine Chaplin). The unmerciful Abbess sentences her to starve to death. Another young woman, Antonia (Josephine Japy) has heard Ambrosio preaching and been inspired by his words. Along with Valerio, she becomes embroiled in Ambrosio’s sinful downward spiral.
The Monk is a film full of light and shadows; the sacred and the profane. In the very first scene, the viewer can dimly make out Cassel’s face as he sits in the dark, listening to a man confess his sins. Cassel’s face is almost constantly half-shadowed throughout the film, emphasising the duality of his nature as both priest and sinner. Shadows have as large a role as any of the actors, revealing more than they conceal. The images of shuffling monks, flickering candles and grotesque gargoyles are all given an extra layer of significance by Moll’s chiaroscuro lighting.
Reminiscent of other dark religious dramas such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of The Rose, The Monk succeeds in conjuring an affecting representation of the stern and unforgiving nature of organised religion, which was so pervasive in centuries past. Managing to avoid overdoing it with lashings of Gothic tropes, the film is a subdued and genuinely enthralling take on Lewis’s novel (which is sometimes a little over the top). The editing style plays a large part here, ensuring that Ambrosio’s hallucinations and dream sequences are satisfyingly blurred and choppy, yet still gritty and realistic, with few slip-ups (there is one thirty second scene, involving the ghost of a nun, which looks a bit too clean-cut).
While all of the cast members are perfectly capable in their parts, it is definitely Vincent Cassel who leads the pack. He is mesmerising as Ambrosio, bringing the perfect mix of angst, humility and holiness to the title role. If the film had nothing else to recommend it except his performance, it probably wouldn’t matter; Cassel is more than able to carry the entire movie on his shoulders, sustaining the intensity of his performance throughout.
By today’s standards The Monk is an extremely short film, stopping dead on an hour and a half, but this is yet another of its many strengths. A longer version would have run the risk of dragging, leaving viewers looking at their watches during the slow scenes. Instead, we are left with an impassioned and compact film full of dark shadows, brilliant highlights and a series of stark images which seem to remain burned into the retinas.
Best scene: Ambrosio’s dream sequences.