Written and directed by Dominik Moll and based on the novel by author Matthew Lewis, 2011's The Monk is set in the 1700s begins with a scene in which an orphaned infant boy with a birthmark shaped like a hand is left on the doorstep of a monastery. The monks take him in and raise him, naming him Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel). As he grows up he becomes one of the more influential men in the order, delivering sermons powerful enough to send young women in the congregation into an unusual state. One such example is a beautiful lady named Antonia (Joséphine Japy) who, along with her mother, Elvire (Catherine Mouchet), witness one such sermon.
Ambrosio's life takes some strange turns when he gives confession to a young nun (Roxanne Duran). When a note falls out of her pocket indicating that she's been meeting clandestinely with a young man in the garden and committing sins of the flesh, he lets the prioress (Geraldine Chaplin) punish her accordingly. Despite the fact that she is pregnant, she is put in solitary confinement and passes away. Around the same time, a young man named Valerio (Déborah François) arrives at the monastery. Ambrosio is told that his face is deformed and so sensitive to the light that he must wear a mask to avoid the pain. He requests to join the order and though some of his fellow monks don't feel he is fit to serve, Ambrosio insists Valerio be given the chance to serve God. From here on out, Ambrosio's faith, previously seeming unbreakable, is tested as Valerio's true identity is revealed and Ambrosio meets Antonia face to face.
Beautifully shot and making excellent use of some great location photography, The Monk is a very well made film. The cinematography is excellent, using Catholic symbolism to foreshadow events to come in interesting ways, and the use of color particularly impressive. Likewise, the cast are all in fine form here. The supporting players to a great job across the board, there's not a weak link anywhere to levy any criticism against, while Cassel performs admirably in the lead. He brings to Ambrosia a believable sense of conflict and inner turmoil and as he's gained a reputation for doing, he really gives his all here. Had the movie had anyone else in the lead role, it would not have been nearly successful, this is one of those parts that Cassel really is perfect for.
As far as the story itself goes, it's interesting if a bit obvious at times. The twist, or twists really, is pretty easy to see coming if you even halfway pay attention to the movie. Without wanting to spoil it here, some of the symbolism used makes it painfully obvious who Valerio is and some of the early scenes also make clear the truth about Ambrosio's connection to some of the other players. Had there been a bit more mystery here, it would have better served to help build tension and suspense. As it stands, though the movie is marketed as a ‘gothic thriller' it's more of a drama with some dark overtones. Some effective suspense is generated in the last half hour or so, but before then, the movie is more effective as a character study than any sort of cinematic thrill ride.
Though it is a bit on the slow side in terms of pacing, the story itself makes some interesting and particularly barbed observations about the Roman Catholic Church of the time, some of which are still pretty valid today. Thinly veiled commentary on the pros and cons of the ‘vow of celibacy' mandatory for monks and nuns (and by default priests) give the movie some political and theological leanings and so too does it comment in interesting ways on the power of temptation and lust. There are also jabs made about the value or lack thereof in regards to the class system so prevalent at the time, and the grey areas that exist between traditional interpretations of good and evil. As it stands, The Monk, though far from a perfect film, definitely has enough going for it that fans of period films and theologically themed dark dramas should absolutely consider it. Though slow and sometimes obvious, the performances alone make it worth a look.
The Monk is presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen in a transfer that was obviously taken from some pretty pristine source material. There are, however, some minor compression artifacts evident here and there as well as some instances of aliasing and banding that can be hard to ignore. These issues don't plague the entire movie nor do they ruin the viewing experience but they are there. On the plus side, colors look great, black levels are solid and detail is good save for a few scenes that are just a little bit murky when it comes to shadow detail. Skin tones look fine and contrast, save for a few scenes where it's been manipulated for artistic effect, also looks good. Not a perfect transfer, but more than watchable.
French language options are available in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with forced (though not burned in) subtitles in English only. The 5.1 track is the way to go here, as it spreads out the score very effectively and uses the surround channels rather well in a few key scenes to help build mood and atmosphere. Both tracks feature properly balanced levels and clear dialogue. There are no issues with any hiss or distortion and all in all, the audio here is very good.
Aside from a trailer for the feature we get a half hour long Making Of Featurette that is made up primarily of random bits and pieces of behind the scenes footage presented without a whole lot of context. Interspersed in between these segments are interviews with the cast and crew, including Cassel and director Dominik Moll. It's not the most gripping piece ever made on the making of a movie but it does offer some insight into the creative process of those involved in the production and a look behind the camera at what it was like on set. Menus and chapter selection are also included.
The Monk is a little bit on the slow side and its twist isn't as much of a surprise as it could have been but the movie is very well made. The performances are excellent, the camera work and art direction consistently impressive and the imagery often powerful. The DVD isn't reference quality but despite some issues with the transfer it doesn't look bad and sometimes it sounds quite good. Throw in a moderately interesting featurette and this one winds up worthwhile for Cassel fans or those interested in this type of content. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.