The Monk opens with Ambrosia, a monk, (played by A-List French actor Vincent Cassel), listening to the confession of an aristocrat who admits to sexually abusing his young niece – many times. It’s at this point you know that this isn’t going to be a happy film!
Basically, The Monk is the tale of a baby boy, found by the monks during a thunderstorm in 1595, who is taken into their care and grows up to be a good God-fearing monk with a real talent for giving good value come sermon time. Soon his reputation for issuing sincerely meant religious blather brings folks from all over the country - Spain in this case - to listen to him at the monastery’s chapel.
Two women are watching him on one occasion, Antonia, who swoons and faints and is helped up by handsome aristocrat Lorenzo, and another who decides she has to meet this magnificent monk up close and personal, any which way.
Lorenzo pursues the beautiful and virginal Antonia and wants to marry her, but has to get permission from her reluctant mother and from his own uncle first.
Meanwhile two men visit the monastery, a disfigured young man, wearing a mask who wants to take his vows and live in the monastery and an older man, who has brought the young Valerio to the monastery as a favour to the family. The monastery, at Ambrosia’s bidding, accept the young disciple into the fold – big mistake!
The masked man turns out to be the other woman who was desperate to meet this special monk face-to-face. After much deliberation and after she’s helped him recover from a violent headache, Ambrosia agrees to let the woman stay as long as she keeps out of the way and continues to hide her true identity.
It turns out that Valerio is probably a witch or Satan or something with control over the black arts and she seduces the monk, after luring him into being bitten by a poisonous centipede in his own rose garden, and begins to confuse him, meddling with his sanity.
Possible help is at hand when one of his reoccurring dreams comes true and a young woman, clocked in red, turns up at the monastery asking for him. That girl is Antonia. Basically, she wants him to visit her sick mum who was impressed with his sermons and Antonia thinks it will help her mother if she sees him. Impressed by the woman from his dreams he agrees to visit.
Ambrosia falls for the saintly girl and wants her, but she reveals she is in love with another and asks him to leave. However, the witch agrees to help him and works a spell whereby if he uses some enchanted myrtle he’ll gain access to her chambers, unnoticed, and if she takes in the flower’s fragrance in her sleep she’ll fall in love with the monk. Like most cunning plans this one goes horribly wrong, but I don’t want to reveal any more and spoil the film for any interested parties.
The Monk is one of those films that is difficult to categorise. On one hand it’s an interesting historical document about the power of religion and how easily led people are. It’s also about obsession, over both ideas and people.
I noticed that the film is being marketed as a psychological horror film, but I’m not so sure it fits into that category, although it does have some pretty horrific scenes. Probably the most horrific moment is part of a small subplot involving a poor nun who is made pregnant when she falls in love with a local lad and is punished via starvation by the mother superior - her senseless death demonstrating the hypocrisy of the church at that time.
The film is beautifully shot by DoP Patrick Blossier and the locations and sets are used well, creating both scary and stunningly beautiful imagery side by side. Interestingly the editor has chosen to use a pinhole to larger ‘hole’ style of transitioning between some scenes that gives it a kind of retro feel. The music is fairly subdued throughout, although is suitably ecclesiastical in tone.
I’m not so sure the story actually really works, but there are moments of brilliance scattered throughout its runtime (approximately 96 minutes). From the opening eerie shots of gargoyles to the closing shots of a man’s mind caught up in his own hell, this is a film that leaves a lasting impression, even if not all of it is necessary a good one.
Fans of Vincent Cassel will not be disappointed as he gives his usual intense acting performance and he must play the only monk in cinema history to have two sex scenes, so fans of Vincent’s flesh can rejoice!
And this being a French ‘horror’ film it doesn’t hold back on some pretty taboo subject areas including paedophilia, incest and matricide. You kind of breathe a sigh of relief when the more normal murders are committed, even death by gargoyle!
Overall The Monk is definitely worth a look if you want to check out something different; if you have the stomach for it…
Reviewer: Justin Richards
The Monk has recently been released on DVD and is being distributed by Metrodome Releasing. There were no extras on the review disc.