The Monk


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Monk
"Structured like a Greek tragedy, steeped in Gothic gloom, this is a bold and dramatic tale but also a sly one."

What is required of us that we might live virtuous lives? Can righteousness itself lead us to sin? Can a man be condemned to damnation because of the circumstances of his birth? These are among the questions raised by The Monk, a darkly atmospheric version of Matthew Lewis' classic horror tale.

Ambrosio is born in the 17th century, in a deeply religious world, but like all the great moral questions, those which torment him might be applied anywhere. Abandoned as a baby, he is raised within a monastery. His faith in his mastery over worldly temptation comes from study, and whenever his conscience might trouble him he falls back on the strictures he has learned by heart. One day, in the confessional booth, he meets a child molester who seems to be finding perverse pleasure in recounting his sins. Ambrosio challenges him about this, but the man returns the challenge, implying that Ambrosio's own purity is nothing more than a lucky accident. The monk is troubled. That night he dreams of a woman in red.

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Structured like a Greek tragedy, steeped in Gothic gloom, this is a bold and dramatic tale but also a sly one. The Devil only has the power we give him, Ambrosio insists, clinging to a belief in free will which at once condemns him and is undermined by the circular nature of the story. The inhabitants of the monastry fear the night; something seems to be prowling around, even in the sanctuary of the rose garden. But daylight is no kinder; by daylight horrors are revealed and the desert plain that stretches out in all directions yields no hiding place. Director Moll's abrupt shifts between darkness and glaring light challenge the viewer; they are visually troubling, mirroring Ambrosio's inner turmoil as small, apparently insignificant surrenders of responsibility spiral out of control. Soon it seems impossible to go back, but is it ever really too late to do what is right?

At the heart of the thing, Vincent Cassel's steady, unshowy performance provides an essential core of realism. He is in almost every scene and his apparent steadiness, compared with the intrigues and emotional declarations of those around him, is itself seductive. Ambrosio's rationality makes him easy to identify with and an intelligent script makes it easy to fall into step with his thinking until it is too late.

Filmed with a painterly quality that makes it luscious to behold, The Monk is a superb example of its genre and enough to tempt anybody with a passion for film.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2012
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The tragedy of a devoted servant of God whose very righteousness leads him on the path to damnation.
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Director: Dominik Moll

Writer: Dominik Moll, based on the story by Matthew Lewis

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Deborah François, Sergi López, Geraldine Chaplin

Year: 2011

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain, France

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