Gothic thrillers these days are in fairly short supply, so I’d imagine fans of this unique sub-genre will possibly flock to pick up THE MONK. And why not? This R-rated story offers up some modest drama infused with a bit of carnal appeal (just a bit, though, and even I would’ve expected more). What might they find? Well, it’s an exploration of one man’s faith in a world more complex than he had imagined, one that even he took for granted. But isn’t it always the case that the man who places himself so high must inevitably endure the hardest fall?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come’, then read on …)
Brother Ambrosio (played by Vincent Cassel) is a Capuchin Monk in 17th century Madrid whose own origins remain a bit of a mystery: as an infant, he was dropped off on the steps of the monastery. Raised in such a strict environment, Ambrosio practically absorbed a pious morality into his soul, and, as an adult, he becomes a famous preacher of sermons. People come from miles away to hear him speak. However, he’s secretly become enamored with his own sanctity, so when the mysterious Valerio (Deborah Francois) arrives under curious circumstances the monk is fooled into taking a masked woman into their order. Will it spell his personal doom? It may … in more ways than one!
Under other circumstances, it might be easy to dismiss THE MONK as an unconventional ‘bodice ripper.’ It certainly has many of the elements – smoldering passion, issues of faith and obedience, ravishingly innocent beauties, etc. The difficulty here is in the execution. Director Dominik Moll stages everything – even casual scenes of monks walking about the monastery – as if they’re portraits and sequences of extreme importance, laying the path to the picture’s own curious fall from grace.
Ambrosio is the consummate man of faith. He’s committed himself to a life as the servant of God, but his error is that he solidly believes himself exempt from temptation. For the most part, he’s correct – pride and arrogance would seem to inhabit much of what he does, though that may be only the actor’s (and director’s) interpretation – but, as the audience will learn, he can be enticed and/or cajoled into sinning. The irony here is that in trying to save Valerio he unintentionally brings about his own moral stumbling; he inadvertently opens himself up into passions of the flesh – with Valerio but also with the lovely Antonio (Josephine Japy), a French maiden who only comes for the inspiration of his sermons.
It’s here that THE MONK finds its most solid footing – the exploration of Ambrosio’s history – but, by this point, many in the audiences may have begun fast-forwarding through long passages of minimal dialogue and unnecessary footage of monks (or ‘the Monk’) merely strolling about. (I may be exaggerating a bit, so I’ll leave that to you, the viewer, to make up your own mind.) At 101 minutes (and with only this story), THE MONK is simply too long to sustain itself on the depth of its relatively lean story. There are other elements or a few subplots which involve other monks, but the heart and soul is what transpires here involving Ambrosio, Valerio, and Antonio – anything else is cinematic fodder.
There’s a twist in the ending when audiences learn Ambrosio’s secret – something even he didn’t know – and I suppose it’s nice. Still, if you’re watching closely, you should be able to see this one coming … almost like you’ll feel a hand on your shoulder. (Pun intended.)
THE MONK is produced by (holy smokes, there’s a long list!) Diaphana Films, Morena Films, El Monje La Pelicula AIE, and Canal+ to name but a few (just surf on over to IMDB.com if you want the full list). DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through New Video, A Cinedigm Company. For those of you needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a French spoken language film with English subtitles (there is no English dubbing available). As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds mostly solid – the film is replete with some night-time cinematography, and I found a few scenes a bit hard to follow. As for the special features, there’s an hour-long documentary on the making-of the film if you’re inclined (I found it a bit dry and perfunctory).
RECOMMENDED. It’s a bit too long, and it’s a bit more infatuated with its bloated storytelling than it needs to be, and it’s a bit predictable, and (heck) it’s even a bit dull at times, but THE MONK is worthwhile. Clearly, it pokes its nose at the Catholic Church more than once (if that’s your take on its messages), but I’d rather think that it underscores just how fallible man really is despite the best of intentions matched up with maybe even the finest skills. Mankind is destined to fall, and, only in the end, does he find the ability to confess his weaknesses and ask forgiveness, but Brother Ambrosio wasn’t alone here – he was initially led astray by a woman – so let’s keep in mind that it takes two to tangle in the crazy thing we call ‘life.’
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at New Video provided me with a DVD copy of THE MONK by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.