Oh, well. Seeing the new film adaptation makes me feel as if I have. Obviously, I can’t speak to how closely it may or may not adhere to the book, but director Dominik Moll’s The Monk definitely is rich in its Gothic trappings. To me, that alone is a huge plus.
In 16th-century Madrid, a baby with an unusual, hand-shaped birthmark is dropped off at a monastery; the friars name him Ambrosio and raise him as one of their own. The adult Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel, Trance) enjoys a gift of oratory at the pulpit that makes him both feared and revered.
A collusion of events leads to abuse of that power and enormous temptations. Most notable among them is a new arrival to the monastery, whose full mask hides a fire-ravaged face that sports no nose or lips; the mannequin-like visage is eerily emotionless, capturing a look creepier than the 1960 fellow French film Eyes Without a Face, if such a thing is possible.
Things occur outside the monastery, too, which may leave viewers wondering what all of that has to do with all of this — to which I say, “Patience.” It will be well-rewarded. With The Monk, atmosphere is treated with utmost importance, which may account why I was caught so off-guard by a twist ending I failed to see coming, but probably should have.
Gorgeous-looking, even when scenes deal with the darkest recesses of man’s soul, Moll’s picture comes wrapped in a veritable checklist of Gothic and other horrific elements: ghosts, rats, a centipede, the devil. Coupled with the magnetic and increasingly menacing presence of Cassel, that fever-dream style yields a slow-burn victor. The Monk is the kind of film that could win over those people who don’t like — or, more realistically, people who think they don’t like — foreign films. With it dipping its toes in so many seemingly disparate genres — thriller, romance, horror, historical — I’m surprised this one has arrived with such indifference. It deserves better.
New Video Group’s DVD includes 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, also in French, and the film’s assembled-for-America trailer. —Rod Lott
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• Trance film review