Dominik Moll, director of The Monk, hasn’t made a film since 2005. That film, Lemming (a weird reality-twister centred on the discovery of a lemming in the plumbing), was a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2000 picture Harry, He’s Here to Help for which Moll won a Best Director Cesar and star Sergi Lopez won best actor.
Perhaps it is this lengthy period away from the director’s chair that makes The Monk feel so decidedly non-contemporary.
Granted, The Monk is a film adaption of an 18th century text considered wildly immoral and possibly blasphemous in its day, but while outdated techniques such as iris wipes might have seemed quaint to Moll, they come across as clumsy and misconceived in the context of current cinema and as part of what is largely an extremely dark and intense film. A lighter touch would have been welcome, though the photography does serve to emphasise the gulf between the cool sanctuary of the monastery and the sun-baked exterior shots. Ultimately, though, the direction very nearly kills The Monk off by being too noticeable – it finds redemption only in the form of Vincent Cassel, who is superbly brooding as Ambrosio, the magnetic monk of the title.
Abandoned on the steps of a Capuchin monastery as a baby, we join Ambrosio’s story once he has become one of the most well-respected of the cloistered community and a rock star preacher to boot. Young women seem particularly affected by his piety, and there’s a faintly ludicrous scene in which one of Ambrosio’s impassioned speeches induces a swooning fit in the beautiful Antonia, portrayed here with two-dimensional but nonetheless appealing innocence by Josephine Japy. This meeting and the introduction to the monastery of a mysterious, disfigured character called Valerio are the first steps towards Ambrosio’s dramatic fall from grace.
This is a story that requires a more sensitive, updated treatment than it receives – Moll leans too heavily on classic Gothic tropes of grinning gargoyles, leaping flames and cawing ravens. Perhaps an update to the 21st century and the genuine temptations and opposition that clerics face now would have been more interesting, and felt less outdated and tired.
Ultimately, despite the hellfire and brimstone of the story and strong performances from the supporting cast throughout – the aforementioned Sergi Lopez in particular is pleasingly nuts as “le debauche”- The Monk disappoints. Moll obviously had high aspirations for this film, as evidenced by the stark contrasts in his photography and the nuggets of stale philosophy thrown up in his script (“Satan has only the power we give him”. Duh) but when a critically-acclaimed director makes only three films a decade, I feel that we’re entitled to expect something rather more memorable than this visually overwhelming, confused piece of cinema.