Dominick Moll's The Monk follows the rise and downfall of Father Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), a Capucin friar who was raised, and have lived all his life, within the walls of a monastery located just outside 17th Century Madrid.
The film begins with a voice over a dark night scene, describing how Ambrosio came to the monastery, a baby dumped on its main doors after the servant carrying the tiny bundle that stormy night refused to dump him into the river, as evidently his instructions were, when lighting revealed a figure of the Virgin Mary, as if she was watching him, a kind of ancient Big Sister, or so he felt. Remember, what we are talking about here is deep Catholic Spain, centuries ago.
As the years pass away, Ambrosio's fame as a passionate, fiery and uncompromising preacher grows, the church overflowing with parishioners during his sermons, to the point that at least one of them, a young woman, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), faints the first time she heard him preaching. Obviously, this is the 17th century equivalent of a modern day rock star, all that adulation...
But the monk is a preacher who lacks the compassion of those who have lived.
A key scene is when Ambrosio heards the confession of an inveterate sinner, and now pedophile (Sergi López), who describes the debauchery of his niece in great detail, whom he felt as if she were her own daughter, a confession which almost felt as if he was taunting the priest, perhaps trying to tempt him to go astray too. This character reappears at the end of the film, in different circumstances and guise, closing the story. About this time, Ambrosio tells Father Miguel (Jordi Dauder), his mentor and the friar who picked him up as a baby from the threshold of the monastery all those years ago, of a recurrent dream he has been having, a dream in which he sees a young woman clad in a red cloak, praying in front of the church, a woman whom he doesn't see her face, and whom he cannot touch.
Another key scene is where Ambrosio confesses a young novice, Sister Agnès (Roxana Duran), a confession that led to her death in the most horrendous circumstances at the hand of the Mother Superior (Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance here). The same Mother Superior whom we see sternly humping the ground as she marches at the head of her covered novices during a procession of the Virgin Mary, a procession used by Ambrosio as cover to commit the deed that leads to his downfall, and punishment at the hands of the Inquisition, presumably. A deed like the one he himself sent Sister Agnès to her death.
The monk's fame also attracts a mysterious novice, Valerio (Déborah François), to the monastery. A novice who turns to be someone other than what he pretended to be, becoming the tool that led to his downfall, paradoxically after saving his life. Did Valerio do what he did unwittingly?
Meanwhile, Ambrosio grows increasingly obsessed with Antonia, the nature of their real relationship, and the horror that follows, not revealed until the very end, in an scene that ties together all the loose strings.
The Monk brilliantly conveys not only the febrile religiosity of a deeply flawed friar high on rhetoric, and short on compassion, but also the contradictions between an oppressive Catholic Church and the zest for life of the population in 17th Century Spain.
However, I felt that The Monk hovered indecisively between being a horror film, and one exploring the nature, and the excesses, of extreme religious fervour, as the episode with the myrtle branch, itself an ancient emblem of love, indicates.
The Monk is released in the UK by Metrodome Distribution on 20th August 2012
Certificate 15 / 101 Minutes
Directed by Dominik Moll (Lemming / Harry He’s Here To Help), THE MONK is a sumptuous adaptation of the eponymous cult classic Gothic novel which follows the rise and fall of a Capuchin Monk in 17th century Madrid.
Abandoned as a baby on the steps of a monastery and raised in strict Capuchin fashion, Ambrosio has become the most famous preacher in the country.
While large crowds from all over the country come to hear his mesmerizing sermons, he’s also bitterly envied for his success by certain fellow monks.
Convinced of his virtue and righteousness, Brother Ambrosio thinks he is immune to temptation until obscure events start terrorizing the monastery.
Could they be connected to the unexpected arrival of Valerio, an apprentice monk who has the miraculous gift to relieve Ambrosio’s splitting headaches and hides his disfigured face under a wax mask?
Starring Vincent Cassel ( Eastern Promises, Mesrine & Black Swan) Déborah François ( L’Enfant, The Page Turner) Sergi López ( Pan’s Labyrinth, Harry He’s Here to Help & Dirty Pretty Things) and Geraldine Chaplin ( Talk to Her, Doctor Zhivago & The Orphanage)