Dominik Moll’s recent adaptation of “The Monk” was an interesting attempt. Starring Vincent Cassel and set against a beautifully medieval Spanish backdrop, it has a talented cast and a great plotline, only something vital got lost in translation.
“The Monk” is a 1796 cult classic Gothic novel, encompassing sex, religion, incest, murder, the supernatural, cases of mistaken identity and pretty much every other taboo topic that comes to mind. Written by Matthew Lewis at the age of 19, while he was a Member of Parliament, the book caused an immediate scandal and consequently found an immediate readership. Samuel Coleridge famously denounced the work for “blending, with an irreverent negligence, all that is most awfully true in religion with all that is most ridiculously absurd in superstition.” But everyone knows the best way to get people reading something is to tell them not to, so unfortunately Coleridge’s warning went unheeded.
Naturally, the plot of the three-volume novel has been dumbed down to fit the constraints of an hour-and-a-half movie. The film version of “The Monk” begins with an infant boy being found by Capuchin monks in medieval Spain. In their monastery, they raise the boy (whom they name Ambrosio) as their own, and when he comes of age, he too joins their brotherhood.
Ambrosio accrues a local reputation as a holy man without rival, and his own great piety makes him cruel. He brutally punishes a young nun, Agnes, who wishes to leave her convent to be with her lover. Her punishment, when the prioress is informed, is death by starvation and Agnes curses Ambrosio for cutting short her life.
His trial comes in the form of a young novice to the monastery, a boy whose face is concealed by a mask due to scars from an illness he barely survived, the boy claims. In fact, the mask conceals a woman’s face and the revealed Matilda uses witchcraft and sexuality to begin Ambrosio’s spiral into temptation and eventually evil.
Cassel is a very good actor, but he cannot carry the dead weight of this poor script and generally weak supporting cast. Moll makes interesting use of negative photography during some hallucinogenic sequences, but otherwise leaves the part-version of Lewis’ story to stand alone, which it does half-heartedly.
The great thing about the novel is that, over two centuries later, you would still believe it was written quite recently. It’s a page turner–something naughty you shouldn’t be reading but can’t put down. Most importantly, it’s a very good book with a complex frame narrative and a frenetic, frantic pacing which keeps the reader caught up in Ambrosio’s downfall to the very end. This is what the movie has crucially failed to capture. The imposing shadows surrounding our hero separate him from his audience and by the end of the film, instead of being blown away by the spectacle and the horror of Gothicism at its most perverse, I just felt glad that it was finally over.