Vincent Cassel stars in The Monk.

"Two fat ladies: 88..."

Release Date: 27 April 2012
15 | 101 minutes
Distributor: Metrodome
Director: Dominik Moll
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois, Josephine Japy, Roxane Duran

Published at the turn of the eighteenth century, Matthew Lewis’s gothic novel The Monk features rape, murder, incest, Satanism and clergy behaving very badly. A Monk movie could have been a cauldron to bait censors and the Daily Mail.

This new French-language version by director Dominik Moll is at the opposite extreme: measured and stately, eliding the horrors. The titular monk is Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), raised in a Madrid monastery, who’s now its star sermoniser. Within his stone walls and moonlit garden, Ambrosio seems the perfect embodiment of medieval Christian virtue; but his world will be pierced, and the inner man found wanting.

The beguiling early scenes set up Ambrosio’s cloistered, shadowed home in the midst of a glaringly lit Spanish desert. There’s a strong uncanny presence in the shape of a maimed monk wearing a mannequin-like face mask, who has a special interest in Ambrosio. There are shades of Dracula, even Rosemary’s Baby (with a poisonous centipede rather than a chocolate mousse). But the drama rises from the repressed characters, paying off in a highly-charged scene where Ambrosio recites a psalm to a lovely woman, his gaze and his pieties crackling with unspeakables.

Yet Ambrosio’s downfall is shown without the dramatic insight that would compensate for the lack of suspense or dread. The film is studded with lovely painterly images, but ends up feeling cramped and stagey as the denouement wafts in. Ultimately, you wish Moll had made a mad Monk instead.

Andrew Osmond

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