Considering the controversy sparked by the novel The Monk upon publication in 1796 by Matthew Gregory Lewis, newly appointed to the House of Commons at that time, this latest adaptation has arrived with little brouhaha; perhaps times have changed such that the themes of corruption, cruelty and abuse within the church are no longer shocking, or perhaps those of us who watch foreign language films are already considered irredeemable.
Abandoned as a baby on the steps of a monastery in the deserts outside Madrid, thirty years later Ambrosio is now a pious orator whose sermons gather great crowds, whom the sinful hope will hear their confessions. “Satan only has the power we give him,” he preaches, but as a series of outsiders impinge upon his cloistered life, some seeking help, others offering temptation, despite his attempts to adhere to his faith, he will find corruption has already gained a foothold.
Filmed twice before, in 1972 and 1990, starring Franco Nero and Paul McGann respectively, and adapted for the stage numerous times, this is an abbreviation of a novel with a much more complex structure, but its sparseness reflects the life of Ambrosio, the imposing architecture of the monastery, matched by the harshness of the mountains where it is situated. This does result in the film moving slowly towards an obvious conclusion, and much more could have been achieved in the running time.
At times it is the very definition of gothic, with hooded monks chanting under moonlight filtered through billowing dark clouds, ornate processions and Spartan chambers lit only by candles, crows illuminated by lightning flashes as they gather on headstones. In a lesser production, these could be clichés, but captured by cinematographer Patrick Blossier and supported by Alberto Iglesias’ authentic score, director Domink Moll has avoided pastiche by virtue of performances devoted to the gravity of the material.
In the lead role, Vincent Cassel is no stranger to the darkness of the soul; perhaps best known for his English language roles in Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, in his native France he started his career with La Haine before the notoriety of Irréversible. Here, the supernatural is never as explicit as in Le Pacte des Loups, but while subtle, the insinuation becomes more apparent as the film progresses that Ambrosio is being targeted by dark forces.
There are oddities in the film, though perhaps that is to be expected of a French language adaptation of an English novel set in a Spanish monastery, but the most jarring is the stylised scene transitions, as the lens irises in to focus on a character. A conceit at odds with the naturalism of the performances, it draws attention to the medium of the film, reminding the audience that they are viewing an artifice. But, like the hand of god, perhaps directors move in mysterious ways.