The Monk (Le Moine) takes its inspiration from an 18th century gothic romance by English novelist M.G Lewis. Using the familiar tropes of virtue, vice and damnation present in the original text as a foundation, writer/director Dominik Moll has moved the action to 17th century Madrid (although The Monk is in the French language) and reduces the narrative to its essential elements. What remains is a chilling portrait of one man’s descent from innocence to total depravity and moral self-obliteration.
Vincent Cassell could not have been better cast as the eponymous monk, Ambrosio, whose enigmatic power over his congregation and unwavering faith in God quickly unravel in the face of temptation. Initially the enforcer of moral order in his community, Ambrosio succumbs to the seductive powers of Valerio, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to enter his monastery. Ambrosio helps to conceal Valerio and this initial indiscretion gives way to further sins, leading Ambrosio to commit unspeakable acts.
The Monk is a classic exploration of the biblical battle between good and evil taking place in a single human soul. While devoid of cliché, it is rich in symbolism and effectively contrasts the dark, cool interiors of Ambrosio’s monastery with the arid, scorched landscape that surrounds it; a metaphor for Ambrosio’s internal struggle.
Moll’s careful direction ensures a balance of the supernatural and the temporal – Ambrosio could either be seen as a victim of demonic forces within his own monastery or the sole architect of his moral downfall. The story could also be interpreted as a study of the inherent fallacy of constraining natural human desires within rigid social and religious conventions.
Whichever interpretation you chose, The Monk is sufficiently ambiguous to raise some interesting questions about the nature of desire, evil and individual will.