It takes an audacious filmmaker to attempt to bring Matthew Gregory Lewis’s mammoth 1796 novel The Monk to the big screen. One of the most popular reads of the Romantic period, and a key work in gothic fiction, the epic romance follows the fall from grace of a Spanish Capuchin friar, Father Ambrosio, who is tempted by the devil into tasting the pleasures of the flesh.
Back in the 1960s, the surrealist director Luis Buñuel and famed screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriére concocted their own take, but a lack of funds put an end to the project. It was a real pity as the novel’s mix of religious hypocrisy, satanism and the Spanish Inquisition was just perfect for the duo to weave their famed sly wit and surreal humour. And more’s the pity that Carriére’s script ended up being used in a disappointing 1972 adaptation. Four decades on, and forgetting a 1990 attempt with Paul McGann, comes another attempt at bringing the classic novel to the screen.
Lensed by Lemming director Dominik Moll, The Monk, faithfully follows the original source material, with A Dangerous Method star Vincent Cassel pulling on the monastic robes of the hypocritical friar Ambrosio, who finds himself tempted into lusting after a woman who also haunts his dreams. Compressing Lewis’ epic tome into 101 minutes is no mean feat, but Moll takes a pretty neat stab at it.
Where the film excels is in the scenes which evoke the novel’s gothic tradition: particularly one set in a moonlit rose garden where a masked monk reveals himself to be a woman, and a creepy religious procession scene featuring monks with candle wax dripping from their heads. But it’s the film’s climax that disapponts. The big reveal – when Ambrosio discovers just how damned his soul is – comes too quick, and too fast. There’s no chance for the audience to take in the enormity of the tortured friar’s discovery – as such you find yourself asking for more. Still, it is visually arresting, and is spoken in such a richly poetic French that it has given me cause to pick up Lewis’ original novel once again.
In French, with English subtitles.
Released on DVD 20 August 2012, through Metrodome