Release date: August 20th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 100 minutes
Country of origin: France
Original language: French with English subtitles
Director: Dominik Moll
Writers: Dominik Moll, Anne-Louise Trividic, Matthew G. Lewis (novel)
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Japy, Sergi López, Catherine Mouchet, Jordi Dauder, Geraldine Chaplin
Why do we believe in religion? Is it because we believe we can be better people because of it? Or because we fear this is all there is and want there to be more?
All religion requires of us is faith in return for ever-lasting life, along with the chance to know God. If we’ve sinned along the way, we can be forgiven if we repent, but does God draw a line when it comes to what sins are forgivable and who can be forgiven?
Based on the 1796 gothic novel, written by Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk is a morality tale depicting the downfall of its once virtuous central character.
Set in 17th century Madrid, it begins on a stormy night when a baby is left abandoned on the doorstep of a monastery. Taken in and raised by the Capuchin Friars, Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) grows up to become a well known preacher whose sermons draw in the faithful in droves. They come to listen to his words and are moved by his strict devotion to God, in their eyes this is a man free from sin.
When a young nun comes to him to confess her sins, he discovers she’s with child, and although she begs Ambrosio to have mercy on her, he is bound by his duties to report her to the Mother Superior. As a result, she’s locked in a dungeon without food or water where she, and her unborn child, dies.
Back at the monastery, Ambrosio is tormented by a dream of a woman in red and suffers from terrible headaches. He takes to his private garden where the other monks aren’t allowed to disturb him.
A young man, Rosario, has also taken refuge in the monastery. Scarred since a terrible fire during his childhood, Rosario wears a wax mask and no one has seen what lies beneath it. He enters the garden where Ambrosio, in terrible pain, is praying, and lays his hands on his head. Ambrosio’s headache miraculously ceases but later on he discovers the young man’s real identity and begins a descent into the most sinful crimes imaginable, especially for a man of his standing.
Beautifully filmed and with gothic touches throughout, The Monk is a film I knew very little about before seeing it and was surprised by how the story played out. Cassel is every bit convincing as the virtuous monk who thinks he’s safe from the Devil’s temptations, but when his faith is tested time and time again – he fails.
The twist in the story was something I didn’t see coming, the way Moll weaves it all together meant I was so glued to what was happening that I barely had time to think what could happen. There were times however when I was a bit lost, for example, I couldn’t quite work out how the murderous figure fits into the story, or some of the other characters, and it was a long time before it became clear.
The musical score by Alberto Iglesias was very effective in creating an atmosphere that went well with what was being shown on screen but there were moments when it felt intrusive and unnecessarily over-dramatic. Despite this, it was hard not to soak up the scenery. When we see Ambrosio giving his sermon, the camera pans and lingers around and over the pulpit and we get a sense of the scale and emotion of the scene.
Elsewhere, the gardens in the monastery and the areas outside of it are exquisitely captured. There’s a breathtaking procession at night which ties in with the climax of the story – it evokes eeriness and the feeling that even in the presence of such faith, evil is never far.
It’s easy to see why The Monk caused so much outrage when it was first published over 200 years ago. Back then, stories were meant to promote virtue, and not vice. This one tells of a monk who gives into his urges, but he’s not the only one. All around him are sinners – despite their faith.
It’s an intriguing film and a story that makes us wonder, not just about who can fall from grace, but also if they can still be saved when they’ve fallen that far.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .