DVD Review – The Monk (2011)
Review by Stephanie Scaife
I have to admit that I knew nothing of this story before watching the film and was somewhat surprised that I’d never come across it before. The Monk started off rather infamously as a novel, initially published anonymously due to its violent and sordid content, by a young Englishman named Matthew Lewis who although best known as a writer of gothic fiction was also, rather bizarrely, a Member of Parliament. Over the years there have been numerous adaptations including stage plays, an opera, a sadly unfinished Buñuel film adaptation, along with a 1990 British film adaptation starring Paul McGann. Now we have this French/Spanish film adaptation directed by Dominik Moll (Lemming, Harry He’s Here to Help) that stars Vincel Cassel in the title role. The Monk is a fascinating story that depicts the tragic downfall of a greatly admired man.
Set in 18th Century Madrid, The Monk tells the story of Ambrosio (Cassel) who was left on the doorstep on the monastery as a baby. Raised amongst the Capuchin monks, Ambrosio grows to become well respected and popular within the Catholic community, drawing church-goers from miles around to attend his sermons. At one of his particularly rousing sermons a young local girl, Antonia (Joséphine Japy) is so overcome that she faints. Luckily for Antonia, a wealthy and attractive young man by the name of Lorenzo (Frédéric Noaille) comes to her aid and the pair are immediately smitten with one another.
Meanwhile a mysterious and unsettling man named Valerio turns up at the monastery asking to join the brothers. He wears a mask to hide his horribly disfigured face, and although initially mistrustful Ambrosio convinces his brothers to permit Valerio to join them, going against their traditions by allowing him the privacy of his own quarters to bathe and eat in privacy. However, it seems that the brothers should have perhaps paid more attention to their initial reservations as mysterious things start to happen after Valerio’s arrival. Ambrosio in particular becomes captivated by his unique healing abilities, as he suffers from debilitating migranes that are eased by a single touch from Valerio. However, it’s not until Valerio saves him from a particularly poisonous insect bite that things take a real turn for the worse and Ambrosio starts to spiral from virtue into something altogether sinister, with dramatic results. He is also plagued by a dream about Antonia who one day approaches Ambrosio and has him go to visit her dying mother. It’s Antonia’s beauty and naivety that finally drives Ambrosio from the edge of his already dwindling sanity into an abyss of transgression.
I’m wary of spoiling too much, as although this story has been knocking around for a few hundred years, if like me you know nothing of its twists and turns the film will provide a more rewarding experience. So honestly, the less you know the better. From what I’ve read about the story online, Moll has avoided many of its visceral excesses and takes a far subtler approach to the subject matter. This pays off in my opinion, offering a more meditative take on the central concept of faith and morality. Although a tad slow in places and with some dubious editing choices (it reminded me at times of The Simpsons episode where Homer discovers the star wipe whilst editing Flanders’ dating video) the real reason to watch The Monk is unsurprisingly Vincent Cassel, who I think it one of the best actors working today. He is utterly compelling as Ambrosio, conveying complex emotions and inner turmoil with very little dialogue. I found it slightly distracting that although set in Spain everyone was talking in French, but that aside this is an entirely watchable and enjoyable Gothic horror that has a few surprises – some I saw coming and some I didn’t.
The Monk is available now on Region 2 DVD from Metrodome. For another take, see Keri’s review.