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Tempting Faith

The Monk (2011)


When the novel on which “The Monk” is based was first published in 1796, it caused a sensation thanks to both its salacious content and blatantly anti-Catholic stance. The author, Matthew Gregory Lewis, preferred unbridled passion to piety believing that a life following your natural desires was far better than one spent devoted to God. The Marquis de Sade was a big fan of the book, which is a sure sign that “The Monk” is not something to give your grandmother for Christmas.

Such a novel was bound to attract the attention of filmmakers; and there have been various attempts to bring the story to the screen. The most notable was a version scripted by Luis Buñuel which was released in 1972. Now it is Dominik Moll, director of the offbeat contemporary thrillers “Harry, He’s Here to Help” (released in the United States as “With a Friend Like Harry ...”) and “Lemming,” who brings us his own interpretation of a tale which leans heavily towards the Gothic.

Over 200 years have passed since “The Monk’s” conception and tastes have changed. The type of grandiose elements which might have shocked people back then are more likely to induce sniggers in a modern audience. Yet, there are still aspects of this admirable film that could disturb viewers today and overall it is a powerful and visually impressive piece of work.

“The Monk” tells of the fall from grace of Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), who is abandoned as a baby outside a Capuchin monastery near Madrid. The brothers take him into their care, although several are suspicious of his true origins. These feelings are not helped by the fact that he has a birthmark on his shoulder in the shape of a big red-hand print. Ambrosio is raised as a monk and in adulthood becomes well-known for his fire and brimstone preaching.

His sermons are a far cry from a few mumbled prayers and a chorus of “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” Ambrosio prefers to remind his congregation that they are but a hair’s breadth from damnation. Despite — or possibly because of — this, the crowds flock to see him and the ladies love him.

Then events turn a little strange. Ambrosio takes confession from a stranger (Sergi Lopez) who delights in admitting that he is having sexual relations with his own niece. After that, there is talk of evil forces stalking the cloisters and the mysterious Valerio (Déborah François) arrives to seek sanctuary in the monastery. Valerio hides behind a mask and claims to have been disfigured in a fire which killed his parents.

The revelation of Valerio’s true identity becomes a turning point in Ambrosio’s devotion to his faith as long-suppressed desires are awoken within him. He experiences dreams of reaching out to a girl dressed in red who always remains beyond his grasp. This girl, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), turns out to be real; and Ambrosio falls for her even though it is clearly outside his job description and she is promised to another. Affected by forces that are not of this world and struggling to retain his vows, the monk descends into a madness which brings about appalling consequences.

Ambrosio is not a man that one can easily sympathize with at first: His beliefs are so deeply entrenched that they smother his sense of compassion. When he discovers that a young nun has become pregnant, he has few qualms in telling on her to the mother superior. In his eyes, Ambrosio is handing her over to be judged by God but her actual punishment is truly awful.

Mr. Cassel played Ambrosio with an unusual restraint, acting in small movements and somehow manages to squeeze out a vestige of sympathy for a man who becomes both the victim of circumstance as well as his own weaknesses. Mr. Cassel is extremely good, as is Geraldine Chaplin who plays the ruthless mother superior. Good God, is she horrible. Last time one felt like slapping a nun this much was during “The Magdalene Sisters” 10 years ago.

If the unflattering portrayal of religion has been toned down from the book, then it still gives one the shivers. This was the 18th century, when inquisitions and burnings at the stake helped to enforce church law along with bibles and prayer beads. One emerges from the film thinking that, even with the demonic forces at work in the story, it is some of the human participants who are the real monsters — not that acts of insane cruelty are no longer to be found behind the emphatic observance of religion, of course.

In “The Monk,” the supernatural is not mere fantasy but instead lives side-by-side with reality. If the spirits inherent in religious creed exist, then conversely evil must too. Mr. Moll has been here before when he explored the concept of possession in “Lemming,” but with “The Monk” he really went to town. Few elements of Gothic lore are left out — with a ghost, stone gargoyles, witchcraft and squawking ravens all making an appearance. The director was clearly having great fun with the material despite the generally downbeat tone of the story.

Visually, “The Monk” is a treat. Congregations are composed and lit as if they had stepped out of a Goya painting; scenes change via the opening and closing iris technique of silent cinema; and a feverish sex scene is shot with the filters of an early ’80s pop video. Somehow Mr. Moll gets away with this Frankenstein approach to filmmaking, and the result is often quite stunning. “The Monk” is by no means a straight historical recreation, and all this trickery helps to build the illusion of a past that is largely alien to us in its practices and beliefs. Not so much a case of looking back through a telescope — but more a kaleidoscope.

If one is not impressed by the line of nuns proceeding through a Leone like landscape, then surely the sight of a religious ceremony where men wear large lighted candles upon their head will be burnt into your cinematic memories. Forgive the pun: For if some of the ideas in “The Monk” are old-hat, there are also moments that you will certainly not have witnessed before.


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