It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film where I really had no idea what I was expecting. Aside from having my homepage display the RSS feeds of my favourite movie sites I am routinely checking around to find different red band trailers. Sometimes I worry I like the trailers more than the actual films but that notion is quickly squashed when I look at my bulletin board covered in ticket stubs. So, when I decided I’d had enough of my flat, I gathered up my pen and notebook and headed over to the theatre to see what was playing tonight at the festival to check out a movie called The Monk. The only thing I knew about it was that Vincent Cassel was in it. That’s it.
There is no denying theology is a fascinating study. Whether or not you tie yourself to any particular religion or deity does not change this. Maybe it is the idea of higher power imparting his will for the greater good of humanity that makes some people rest easy at night. For others it may be the enchanting allure of researching a villain that is the vary evil incarnate. Many are drawn to the latter when researching or studying out of curiosity simply because they have the conviction they know right from wrong and can stare down the devil and come back unscathed. In Dominik Moll’s The Monk it’s this idea of being above temptation that is explored in depth. One never knows how or if the devil may strike but as men of God know, it’s only a question of when the outcast angel will make his way to your doorstep.
It is 17th Century Madrid. A woman scurries through the streets at midnight with a baby in her arms. She comes to a bridge and is about to discard the child when a lightening illuminates the sky and displays a statue of the Virgin Mary watching this woman’s actions. Rather than kill the child she decides to abandon him leaving the crying baby on the steps of a monastery. Raised in strict Capuchin fashion the boy, Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), has lived his entire life within the walls of this holy place. At a young age he decided he too would become a monk and took his vows following his 18th birthday.
Envied and feared by his fellow brethren, Ambrosio quickly becomes the most famous preacher in the country. His sermons are heard by enormous crowds that have come from all around his country from lay people to other high-ranking religious figures. His extreme conviction in his own faith has made him believe he is above temptation; as he says, “The devil only has the power we give him.” But he is not without his own demons. Plagued by crippling headaches and the reoccurring dream of a woman in red, it seems Ambrosio has just begun to have his faith tested. The arrival of the mysterious Valerio who wears a grotesque wax mask to hide his disfigured face is only the beginning of a madness Ambrosio may not have the will to fight off.
As with many period films it’s easy to fall into restrictive themes. Fortunately, the melding of dream and nightmare allow this tale to shift away from the exactitude most period pieces attempt to encapsulate. This makes the imagination and mystery of the film come to the forefront rather than historical reconstruction. The Monk is not necessarily the story of any real person’s life; rather, it is a gothic fairytale that allows realism and the fantastical to flow together. This is made clearer by Moll’s use of an iris style zoom making chapters of the story begin and end like the eye opening and closing. This adds to the feeling of a dream as well as being an omniscient spectator to these events.
The most interesting aspect of the movie is how unapologetic it is. Being raised Catholic, I have since faded away from any sort of tie to religion so it’s always intriguing to see how others will depict the faith I had force fed to me the first eighteen years of my life. Moll perfectly captured the holier-than-thou feeling many people of faith wear like a badge. Ambrosio may be a man of God and willing to forgive those who confess their sins but he is also the first one to throw stones and condemn others for buckling under temptation. After a young woman in the convent is revealed to be pregnant he exposes her to Mother Superior who takes no mercy on her. She is thrown into a dungeon and left to starve to death. In a religion that teaches forgiveness and redemption above all else, the ordained practice a far more severe punishment.
Symbolism is rampant throughout this film as it should be. When exploring religious themes it is an integral tool to add depth to each scene. The most noteworthy being how the contrast of light and darkness works. It’s easy to figure out light equals good while darkness equals evil. However, Moll crafts this theme in a beautiful way showing the outside world as this beautifully bright place, full of colour and life. It is inside the monastery where the darkness lies as Moll makes every shot inside black, or hues of blue and grey. It’s easy to see that the darkness of evil will arise from inside this house of the Lord.
This film is worth checking out and not just by those who may be jaded by religious folk. Its story is one that unravels slowly and makes you try and guess what will happen next before it’s revealed. It’s also very clear this film was influence by many others such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and other classics like Black Narcissus and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the film you’ll not only be discussing this film but you’ll be heading back home to watch a few more.
David Rowley (@thedavidrowley)
Director – Dominik Moll
Release Date: 27th April 2012 (UK)
Writers – Dominik Moll (screenplay/adaptation/dialogue), Anne-Louise Trividic (screenplay/adaptation/dialogue) and Matthew Lewis (novel)
Cast – Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Jay