The Monk: A tale of virtue and temptation

In Dominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s cult gothic novel The Monk (which caused some outrage, facing accusations of blasphemy, when it was first published in 1796 by the 19 year-old author), Vincent Cassel stars as the righteous Brother Ambrosio about to fall from grace…

It is the year 1595 when- abandoned by his parents- a baby is left in front of a Capuchin Monastery in Madrid and taken in by the monks. He grows up to become Brother Ambrosio, a renowned, strict preacher who attracts believers from afar to listen to his mesmerizing sermons.  Sure of his own moral perfection, he has no pity for sinners and believes himself to be immune to temptations. He is a hero bound to fall.

It is when the young apprentice, Valerio, arrives at the monastery disguised with a wax mask- which he claims covers his wounds from a horrific incident- that Ambrosio’s allegorical mask of moral perfection starts to fall. His fate is foreshadowed by a haunting reoccurring dream of which he can make no sense: in a Hitchcock-like scene he finds himself on a rooftop looking down on a woman in a red cape. The Monk plays with further foreshadowing of fantasy and desire with familiar imagery and references to film, the Oedipal connection, the Faustian bargain and the scenery of paradise. It is in the latter that Brother Ambrosio likes to wander undisturbed– until his “Eve” (Déborah François) enters his “Garden of Eden.”

The story unravels in scenery painted by light and darkness. “I wanted to fully explore the visual wealth of Gothic and Catholic decorum: the devil, processions, Inquisition, crucifix, ghosts, cemeteries, tunnels, crows, centipedes, magical myrtle… Folklore, with the situations and the archetypal characters to go along with it,” Dominik Moll explains. With imagery inspired (among others) by Velasquez and Goya paintings, he draws on a Romanesque atmosphere of “mystery and imagination,” he asserts. 

As for the acting, this is Moll’s first collaboration with Vincent Cassel, who coins the director’s acting style as “German-Japanese minimalism,” describing an internal tension- a controlled madness which demands little motion but great inner turmoil. This is the state in which we find Ambrosio.

Vincent Cassel, who starred as another kind of monster in Christophe Gans’s Beauty and the Beast (part of the Walk This Way collection of Premium Films), now discovers a love greater than the one for God- a kind he previously denounced a young pregnant nun for feeling.  Punishment is inevitable.

The Monk will be available on 30 September in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

06 October 2015, by Cineuropa