THE MONK (2011) DVD/BLU-RAY
Perching ravens. Check. Oodles of gargoyles. Check. Cemetery under a full moon, preferably with dark clouds billowing in front. Check, check, check. Further truisms in this superficial Gothic-by-numbers include gloomy cloisters, ghostly visions, ghastly secrets. Lob overt symbolism in there, a bit of repressed desire, some allegedly tragic comeuppance and melodrama has been added to the mix. Finally, glaze the whole thing with such po-facedness as to make Ingmar Bergman seem like Chuckles the Clown and you have the dismal affair that is The Monk.
The titular brother is one Ambrosio, a model of moral rectitude, feared and admired by his brethren. Many travel the land to hear the friar’s sermons, especially women, for he has the image of Vincent Cassell although with only a fraction of his usual volatile charisma. All is going well at the monastery until a young boy, Valerio, is admitted to become a devotee: he wears an eerily blank mask and hood due to a supposed fire that has robbed him of features. When the superior starts crowing to Ambrosio that danger is prowling about the abbey, there are no prizes for guessing that it has come in disguise. But what would be the most effective ‘evil’ to manifest itself in an hermetically sealed institution of hard up men contemplating each other in silence?
Yep, a seductress lurks behind the visage and she’s got her sights set on the most upstanding monk around. When Ambrosio spurns her, she uses her feminine wiles to somehow convince a centipede to bite him with poison so she can suck it out when he’s lying stiff in bed. Raw and sore from the most fitful night of his life, Woman has released something base from his glands and Ambrosio’s suppurating desire will draw him into committing the most heinous sin of all.
Casual misogyny aside, The Monk is a didactic, naïve and self-important morality tale, rather like one of its main character’s sermons. Beginning with a murky confession of a man’s incestuous relationship with his niece, the maxim that Ambrosio retorts is that “Satan has only the power we give him.” Who’s guessing that those words will come back to munch him on the posterior at the end, set in a desert wilderness no less? The monk’s recurring, prosaic dream of an anonymous woman that he reaches out to but cannot grasp is ponderously floated as the key to the parable, but the eventual reveal of identity will come as little surprise to anyone who has managed to stay sentient up to that point. “Isn’t it strange how we fail to see the meaning of things?” says Antonia, the young girl that will eventually become Ambrosio’s downfall, whilst puzzling over these visions, marking her out as possibly the most legally blind character in the history of turgid cinema.
Director Dominik Moll, who made the superb thrillers Harry, He’s Here To Help and Lemming, fires blanks at every step of the way, downplaying the supernatural elements to sprigs of myrtle and talk of demons. He complements the crass literalism of the story with obvious stylistic bombast: when Ambrosio is being ‘raped’ by Valeria, the image is inverted to become a negative; as his attraction to Antonia becomes all-consuming, the sunlight behind disappears leaving him in darkness.
The Monk is a crushing disappointment: if only the filmmakers had approached the literary source novel with less reverence, and jettisoned all austere preaching to instead embrace the Gothic melodrama. Then at least we might have had the fun of a few rubber bats and buxom harlots added to the mix.