Based on the Gothic novel by Matthew G. Lewis, German director Dominik Moll’s fourth feature The Monk (2011) delves deep into the world of an 18th century Spanish Capuchin monastery, where one of its most revered brethren is drawn towards the black arts of sin and the supernatural. Abandoned on the steps of the monastery as a baby, Father Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) grows to become an impassioned preacher. However, when a new novice appears within the cloistered walls, Ambrosio’s faith is tested to extreme lengths.
More morality tale than supernatural thriller, Moll’s devilish adaptation of Lewis’ The Monk is a somewhat lacklustre affair. The film’s true horror seemingly lies less in the content and shows up more in a series of shocking editing choices, including Moll’s extremely problematic, persistent use of circular fades and an overindulgence in soft lighting. A surface-level treatment of some complex issues is the unfortunate mark of this version of Lewis’ classic text, with themes of religious zeal and sinful temptation explored only at a basic level.
In simple terms, the story follows a man who finds that himself struggling between repressed carnal desires and his love for his God. Overlaying this theme are the occasional supernatural elements that add the Gothic tint to the tale. French star Cassel handles these themes well, truly expressing the spiritual torment suffered by Ambrosio. Sadly, the rest of the cast fail in their endeavours however, in particular Déborah François’ overly-camp performance.
The setting of the gloomy Capuchin monastery, constantly draped in shadow, is contrasted with life outside, where overly bright soft lighting screams the overarching moral message loud and clear. Note should be made however of the cinematography, which at its best paints Goya-esque scenes, particularly towards the conclusion of Moll’s film. In addition, the use of chiaroscuro lighting throughout generates a suitably spooky atmosphere.
With its central themes inadequately explored cinematically, The Monk fails to ever genuinely capture the imagination. Its treatment of sex is a little ‘PG’ which, considering the Gothic horror source, feels strange indeed. With sex, incest, rape and Satan involved you would presume that The Monk would come together to make an interesting film, yet disappointingly, Moll has failed to grab the Devil by the horns and instead leaves audiences with a very mediocre period chiller.