It might be set in the 17th Century but The Monk, Dominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ cult 1796 gothic novel, feels like it might have been taken from one of Freud’s case studies.
Repressed sexuality bubbles through the angsty score by Alberto Iglesias and through lead actor Vincent Cassel’s rigid but charged-up performance, while the hot Madrid landscape looks desiccated by it.
But this story of a Capuchin monk who takes his purity and rigidity to such an extreme that the pendulum can only swing violently the other way also works on the supernatural level – in fact it seems to suggest that the two forces, sexual and supernatural, work in sync.
If the monk in question, Ambrosio (Cassel), would just chill out and allow himself an outlet for his human needs then he wouldn’t be so unyielding about following the rules of his profession that he harms someone who isn’t so rigid about them, wouldn’t attract the attention of evil, wouldn’t go down like a set of tenpins before the first whiff of temptation… and so on. There’s a chain of infection here that’s easy to see – and almost painful to watch.
The performances add to the morbid atmosphere of the film. Ambrosio moves as if he’s in a strait jacket, the evil Mother Superior of the nearby convent (Geraldine Chaplin) is so pickled in her own frustrated sexuality that she looks more like a Greek Fury than a nun, while Valerio, the enigmatic new arrival to the monastery who gets under the monk’s skin using gentleness and vulnerability, hides his supposedly disfigured face behind a sinister wax mask that also distorts his voice to an unnatural degree.
Matthew Lewis clearly wasn’t a fan of the Catholic church – nor of mothers, despite claiming to have written the novel to entertain his mum. They get an extremely short shrift.
Not surprisingly, laughs are few and far between in The Monk. This is not over-the-top Hammer gothic, it’s Freudian gothic in which even the devil ditches his horns and makes a more creepily low-key appearance as a paedophile. But the film raises some questions about the overlap between warped sexual energy and supernatural evil that are reminiscent of David Lynch.
Long after the curtain falls on Lewis’ story of self-denial going postal you’ll be pondering just how much Ambrosio was a victim of his fate – and how much an agent.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 27th April 2012 by Metrodome.
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