Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) was abandoned as a baby and raised by monks; inevitably, he becomes one of their number and an accomplished preacher. After the head monk dies, Ambrosio finds himself thrown into turmoil through the manifestation of his dreams and temptations of the flesh.
The Monk is based on Matthew Lewis’s book of the same name, which was published in 1796. The book was inflammatory at the time, and was banned for several years, but now – after so many scandals at the church – it appears that the film has lost some of its relevance.
Vincent Cassel has a quiet intensity as Brother Ambrosio, and he expertly convey that the character is struggling with his faith and ideals throughout the whole film. The film rests squarely on Cassel’s shoulders and his interactions with the people around him. His faith is tested – and Cassel appears to be repulsed by the person he has become – after a young novice is revealed to be a woman and seduces him.
The visuals in the film are stunning, from the deserts of Catalonia to the sumptuous interiors of the churches. Director Dominik Moll has an eye for detail and creates the scenes with care for the visual. Moll also carefully directs his leading man; Brother Ambrosio’s descent into evil and the arms of Satan could easily have been played as over the top, but instead, it is as he recites a psalm to the object of his affections that he is overcome with desire for her. The film does border on the melodramatic, but this is more due to the music and the composition of shots, rather than the performances from the cast.
The Monk is an interesting story about desire and morals, and it has echoes of Goethe’s Faust, as Ambrosio sells his soul to the Devil in order to save the one he loves. His actions may have a different motivation to Faust – and we never see the outcome of his bargain – but there are definite similarities there. The problem with the film is that it appears to have lost some of its relevance over the many years since it has been written and the script labours with the theological wisdom that it offers the audience.
In all, The Monk is a classic tale, but one that is definitely not timeless. Perhaps the story would have been better told with a less dense script, or perhaps in a modern day setting. The visuals are beautiful and Cassel is commanding, but the film veers into the slightly silly with it’s over the top use of Gothic imagery, leaving the leading man struggling to hold the piece together.