BFI London Film Festival Review: The Monk (2011)

Vincent Cassel in The Monk (2011) Movie Image

French-Spanish production “The Monk” is the third feature from writer director Dominik Moll (“Harry, He’s Here To Help”, “Lemming”), and is an adaptation of the 1796 novel by Matthew Lewis, itself renowned as being one of the key texts of gothic literature. Having been adapted for the screen back in 1972 by Ado Kyrou (with a script co-written by Luis Buñuel), the book has proved hugely influential over the years, not to mention controversial, being banned for its risqué content and dealing with a variety sacrilegious themes. Given this, it’s hard to imagine a better choice of actor for the lead role than charismatic madman Vincent Cassel, whose mere presence in this kind of genre fare is immediately enough to elevate to being a film of considerable interest.

Cassel plays Ambrosia, a monk who has spent his whole life in the monastery after being found on its steps as a baby, growing up to be known for his fervent sermons and unassailable, often harsh faith. His beliefs are challenged with the arrival of a masked youth called Valerio (Déborah François), who plays on his weaknesses and slowly seduces him into a web of secrets and dark deceits. Confused by his attraction to Antonia (Joséphine Japy), a beautiful woman who openly admires him, Ambrosia gradually falls into depravity and sin.

Déborah François and Vincent Cassel in The Monk (2011) Movie Image

To an extent, “The Monk” falls foul of many of the issues of adapting a piece of highly influential classic text, in that most of its ideas and themes have already been covered already in other films. Certainly, its exploration of religious guilt and hypocrisy in the face of temptation is nothing new, and although the plot is well-told, it’s predictable from the start, even for anyone completely unfamiliar with this kind of tale. Sadly, Moll fails to compensate for this with any added depth or psychological examination of Ambrosio’s tortured mind and emotions, and as a result, while vaguely tense and gripping, the film feels old fashioned in a somewhat tired way. Oddly, the film also eschews the kind of lurid detail or extreme content which might have made for entertainingly sensationalist viewing, showing a determined restraint in the face of the suggestiveness of the source material and throwing in just a few touches of sex, black magic and violence. At the same time, the film is light on surrealism, and despite a few touches of weirdness and a philosophical conclusion, is unambitiously straightforward throughout, quite unlike the 1972 effort from Kyrou and Buñuel.

This all probably sounds a bit harsh, and there is still a great deal to be enjoyed here, mainly since the film is an incredibly handsome and well-mounted production. Moll does a fantastic job of evoking a properly gothic atmosphere, bringing back fond memories of classic 1970s Euro-horror. Fans will definitely enjoy this aspect, with much of the film taking place in darkness or by candlelight and the proceedings filled with evocative shots of graveyards, creepy architecture, barren landscapes and rose gardens at midnight. This goes a long way to lifting the film up several notches, and its oppressive, doom laden air does help hold the interest and adds a certain grim authenticity to its period setting.

Vincent Cassel in The Monk (2011) Movie Image

The film’s other saving grace, unsurprisingly, comes with Cassel’s superb performance as Ambrosia, who really brings the tormented soul to believable life. Whilst not as over the top as he has been in the past, the actor is a master at depicting conflicted protagonists, and is on fine form here, making the monk’s gradual slide into depravity all too convincing and even understandable. This in itself lends the plot a reasonable amount of humanity and tragedy, even if Moll again seems dead set on downplaying any melodrama.

Once the credits have rolled, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by “The Monk”, a film which promises much but only partly delivers. Lacking either the narrative drive or depth to add anything new to the oft told tale, and being devoid of the visceral thrills that would have marked it as exploitative fun, it’s a competently made and worthy affair, though one to be approached with sadly reduced expectations, despite the presence of Vincent Cassel.

Dominik Moll (director) / Matthew Lewis (novel), Dominik Moll, Anne-Louise Trividic (screenplay)
CAST: Vincent Cassel … Capucin Ambrosio
Déborah François … Valerio
Joséphine Japy … Antonia
Sergi López … Le débauché
Catherine Mouchet … Elvire
Jordi Dauder … Père Miguel
Geraldine Chaplin … L’abbesse
Roxane Duran … Soeur Agnès
Frédéric Noaille … Lorenzo

Buy The Monk on DVD