In 1595 a baby with a curious birthmark is abandoned on the steps of a monastery. Feared at first by the brothers of the holy order, who see the strange hand print shape on his shoulder as the mark of the Devil, the monks ignore their doubts and take the child in to raise him as one of their own.
20 years later and the babe has grown into a man. Taking the name Capucino Ambrosio (played by the incomparable Vincent Cassel) he has found his place in the world, preaching the word of God with such passion and fervor that people flock from miles around to hear him.
Dedicated to his faith and his prayers Ambrosio is still fretful as it seems that something evil is coming his way. Haunted by a strange dream of a woman in red and seeing signs of Satan all around, the arrival of a deformed boy who wears a mask to cover his scars heralds the start of a long slide into oblivion for Ambrosio.
The ultimate question being: Can he keep his faith in the face of temptation and sin? Or will he succumb to the darkness within him?
Written in 1796 by English dramatist and author Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk: A Romance is a Gothic novel that has been adapted for the screen twice before, in 1972 and 1990 with Franco Nero and Paul McGann taking the roles sequentially.
Given the depth of emotion and turmoil that the character of Ambrosio goes through during his tragic tale it’s easy to see why the story has lasted so long and why it would appeal to such a talented actor as Vincent Cassel.
This is really his movie and his performance is brilliant, taking the complex and torturous dilemma’s of faith that plague him in increasing severity and spookiness and crafting a character we truly connect with. His face a mask of anguish almost at all times, he moves through the trials and tribulations set before him, unaware of the evil and horror he is heading for.
The Monk deals with many interesting subjects, from loss of faith to religious morality, from sex and desire to punishment and redemption. Most interestingly is the semi-celebrity status Ambrosio has gained from his sermons and the fine line between relishing performing the work of God and become egotistically convinced of one’s own power and influence over others.
Slow paced throughout director Dominik Moll, who also adapted the screenplay, uses a mixture of styles from old fashioned iris edits to strange 70’s psychedelic dream sequences not all of which work in the context of the story.
There are also several subplots which although do get tied together at the end seem under explored leading to a sense that the viewer is missing out elements that one would assume are better explained and detailed in the original novel.
More a dark religious drama than a thriller, there are some definite horror elements which come more to the fore, as the film unfolds building to a chilling climax.
Part Faustian nightmare, part Greek tragedy, part religious theological exploration, The Monk is an interesting if flawed film with a great central performance that serves as a testament to the longevity and power of the original book.