Dominik Moll’s earlier work showed how good he is at finding the shocking in the mundane, but “The Monk” unfortunately proves he’s equally adept at finding the mundane in the shocking. As intense and high-minded as its titular protag, this visually ravishing, dramatically austere gothic-horror homage, closely adapted from Matthew G. Lewis’ 1796 novel about a holy man’s descent into depravity, shuns the thrills of the original material to focus on its antihero’s troubled psychology. Despite a superbly cast Vincent Cassel, the result is a dry, uninvolving Freudian study with appropriately gloomy commercial prospects.
It’s easy to see why “The Monk” appealed to Moll, whose previous work (“Lemming,” “With a Friend Like Harry … “) deals with the evil lurking beneath respectable surfaces. But the pic is unlikely to generate much excitement even among viewers unfamiliar with the source text. The script (by Moll and Anne-Louise Trividic) strips out one massive subplot from Lewis’ novel, and oddly, the protag’s moral freefall has been realized with far less dramatic excess and general bloodiness than it had 200 years earlier.
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After being left on the steps of a Capuchin monastery in Madrid as a baby, Ambrosio (Cassel) has grown to be a model monk, feared and revered for the intensity of his religious passion. But Ambrosio is having troubling dreams about a woman in red — dreams that turn out, unfortunately for all concerned, to be prophetic.
A masked young man, Valerio (Deborah Francois), whose face has apparently been destroyed by fire, is taken into the monastery, driven by a desire to be close to Ambrosio. On the night that Valerio is unmasked as a woman, Ambrosio is stung by a scorpion. His recovery from this injury is seen by the other monks as a miracle, but from this point, Ambrosio’s habits turn distinctly nasty. Figuring into the story in entirely predictable ways is a subplot concerning the virginal young Antonia (Josephine Japy) and Lorenzo (Frederic Noaille), a nobleman who falls in love with her.
Though the Bunuel-lite script is worked out with care and skill, the story and themes will provoke a yawn of deja vu from modern auds. Typical of the pic’s excessive caution and self-consciousness is the decision to use old-fashioned iris shots in and out of a scene; though understandable as a nod to gothic horror, it suggests a project that’s not taking itself quite seriously.
Widescreen visuals are sumptuous, the contrasts between the harsh light of the desert terrain and the darkness of the monastery reflecting the moral extremes of Ambrosio, whose face is mostly seen half-shadowed. But the film offers no new angle on tropes that were already tired a century ago, and the homage sometimes borders dangerously on pastiche. Set atop a hill, the monastery is too like Dracula’s castle, all hovering ravens and leering gargoyles.
Seemingly directed to remain near-immobile, Cassel makes a virtue of impassiveness, his gaunt features looking increasingly haggard as he negotiates his new world of dangerous emotion. Right from the start, when Ambrosio is receiving confession from a debauched man (“Harry’s” Sergi Lopez), the priest’s eyes convey a troubling hint that he’s taking the wrong kind of interest in the sordid details. Francois makes a lively foil, convincingly shifting from submissive innocent to red-lipped she-devil.
Alberto Iglesias’ score is lovely in its quieter moments, but lays the strings on too thickly when things become intense. Pic features two brief moments of full-frontal nudity.