Gothic literature and cinema has often failed to enjoy the same glowing relationship that they did during the silent era, with sinister source material too often used to create a camp horror sub-category that lacks the dark, foreboding atmosphere of such films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Vampyr (1932). Dominik Moll’s medieval thriller The Monk (2011), a French adaptation of a Matthew Lewis novel, looks set to help reinvent this ailing genre.
On a stormy night in rural Spain a crying baby is abandoned at the gates of a monastery. The baby is adopted and brought up by the monks who inhabit this isolated commune. He grows up to become the orders most powerful and pious preacher – Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel). His sermons are famous throughout the parish, with the locals receiving him with a mixture of respect and fear. However when Valerio – a young disfigured character who wears a mask to hide their burnt face – arrives at the monastery a series of devastating incidents begin to unravel which puts Ambrosio’s spirituality to the test.
Cassel is not an actor synonymous with the type of restrained performance required to depict a servant of God torn between his beliefs and carnal temptations. Indeed he’s renowned for his more explosive and elaborate portrayal of men who have long passed the point of sanity. However his performance in The Monk is tremendous, suppressing his usual flamboyance in exchange for a more thoughtful and calculated approach.
Sadly, Moll doesn’t show the same restrain, all too often allowing his overly stylised direction to dilute the film’s Gothic charms. Certain elements work well, especially the juxtaposition of the bright Spanish countryside with the gloomy composition of the film’s medieval monastery and the Georges Franju-inspired depiction of Valerio which clearly owes a debt to the French auteur’s Eyes Without a Face. What perhaps is most jarring however is Moll’s hilariously misguided use of circular fades which completely detracts from the film’s brooding and ominous ambiance.
Where The Monk does impress is in how it manages to make the scandalous narrative of the original eighteenth century text still appear controversial today. It’s clear to see why this story of sadistic nuns and sexually charged monks would evoke scandal back when it was originally released but for Moll’s film to achieve the same degree of moral discomfort in an age where audience are desensitised to all but the most repugnant of violence and horror is a remarkable achievement in storytelling.
This overblown, yet strangely immersive Faustian tale takes the narrative foundations of a Shakespearean tragedy and forces them through a Gothic filter with erratic results. Deeply menacing yet strangely sterile, Moll’s dark investigation of the psychological depths of spirituality is successful in never descending to melodrama, but The Monk ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression.