Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Monk

Year:  2011
Director:  Dominik Moll
Screenplay:  Dominik Moll and Anne-Louise Trividic, based on the novel The Monk:  A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewis
Starring:  Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois, Josephine Japy, Catherine Mouchet, Geraldine Chaplin
Running Time:  101 minutes
Genre:  Gothic, period drama, religion, thriller, romance, horror

This French film is an adaptation of the famous Gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, which was first published in 1796.  The story is set in a Spanish monastery in the 17th Century and concerns the deeply pious and moralistic Brother Ambrosio (Cassel), who was found abandoned at the monastery as a baby.  The power, eloquence and force of his sermons and the strength of his piety, which is deep even by the standards of the monks, have made Ambrosio famous and people come from miles around to hear him.  He is also merciless in his idea of morality and sin.  However, his ordered life is disrupted when he encounters a mysterious novice, Valerio (Francois), whose face is always concealed by a mask, and who appears to have a very strong interest in Ambrosio.  The monk also finds himself falling further into temptation when he meets the beautiful and virtuous Antonia (Japy).

Okay, judging by the poster and the marketing for the film, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Monk is a horror film, when it really isn't.  It is more of a religious drama dealing with temptation, guilt, sin and redemption.  It is a proper Gothic film so there are plenty of dark passages, illegitimate heirs to great fortunes, persecuted women in flowing gowns and a strong supernatural element, but none of it is really scary, although it is atmospheric and pretty creepy.  The film is slow and has quite a meandering storyline, and times goes off on complete tangents which have nothing to do with the main storyline, such as a sub-plot about a pregnant nun which has no real conclusion or real point.
However, I did like this film.  It is beautifully shot with some stunning locations.  It is one of those films where it feels like every frame you could pin on your wall, because the images are so stunning.  It has an interesting style, including a lot of old-fashioned tricks, such as irising in and out to open and close scenes.  In it's own way it is also genuinely hypnotic and if you allow yourself to get into the film's own rhythm, then there is a lot of pleasure to be had from it.
Vincent Cassel gives a spellbinding central performance as The Monk, making the character magnetic and charismatic, so that you can fully understand why he casts such a spell upon his listeners, and also making an, at times, pretty monsterous character engaging and weirdly sympathetic.  Next to Cassel, no-one else really stands a chance, but the rest of the cast do their best with fairly cliched characters.  However Deborah Francois does well, but Josephine Japy's Antonia is just too sickly sweet to be believable. 
It is worth seeing for the visuals and Cassel's performance and fans of gothic literature are sure to find it intriguing. 

Josephine Japy and Vincent Cassel in The Monk

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