The Monk, or le Moine, is a French film released in France in 2011, and in the United States in 2013, that is based on the Matthew G. Lewis novel, The Monk (1796).
Synopsis of the Film
The film follows the journey of Ambrosio, a monk, through his descent from angelic preacher to follower of Satan. In the beginning, Ambrosio inspires the multitudes of Madrid with his intense passion for Christ. However, as his religious power grows, his spiritual crisis is spiraling downwards. He meets a girl (Antonia) whom he wants to be with, and he cannot calm his mind until he possesses her. Ambrosio’s desire presents the perfect opportunity for Satan to make his move and offer Ambrosio a way to be with Antonia. As Ambrosio progresses down the path of sin, he becomes more entwined with the forces of evil, destroying not only his own life but the lives of others.
Background of the Novel
At the age of 19, Matthew Gregory Lewis decided to write a novel. He published The Monk in 1796, and it is one of the first “Gothic Novels.” The novel follows several story lines: Agnes and Raymond, Leonella, Antonia and her mother, Antonia and Don Lorenzo, Ambrosio and Matilda, Ambrosio and Antonia, several sisters of the St. Clare convent, and a few brothers of the Capuchin monastery. It takes place in Spain during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, though there are many historical anomalies that make narrowing down a date fairly complicated. Ambrosio, having grown up in a monastery, has never experienced temptation. Because of this, he doesn’t know how to resist it, and the Devil plays on Ambrosio’s inability. Ambrosio falls into sin at the same time as his sermons are inspiring every Catholic in Madrid. He feels he has so much to lose, so much power to lose, which is why he keeps his sins to himself. He forsakes his religion, his faith, and his soul, in order to satisfy his physical, primal needs, and in so doing, he destroys the lives of many of his fellow characters. The novel, while sensational at times, provides excitement, terrifying imagery, and a complexity surprising for a novel written so quickly and by such a young author.
Background of the Film
Dominik Moll, a German director, took on the project of making this film because of his love of the novel. Though he has said, diring interviews in the extra footage from the film, that he doesn’t want to do historical period pieces, he felt that the historical anomalies of the novel would make it easier to adapt the novel to film without actually having to do a “period piece.” Moll also saw more to the character of Ambrosio than he thought Lewis presents in the novel. Through the film, Moll wanted to make Ambrosio a more believable and more sympathetic character. Moll also wanted to cast very young women in the roles of Agnes, Antonia, and Matilda because he felt a youthful naïveté, at least the look of it, was necessary for these characters. For the setting, he chose to make it very barren and desert-like and to use a lot of contrasting colors to make certain people or things stand out.
Portrayal of Medieval Catholicism
Moll portrays Catholicism in a very different way from how it is portrayed in the novel. He works to use the intensity of the acting to provide Catholicism with the frigidity and terror it and its buildings possess in the novel rather than using supernatural occurrences and instances of sensationalism as Lewis does. In some instances, Moll has chosen wisely and his actors really follow his lead. For example, Moll directed Vincent Cassel to give Ambrosio’s sermons in a steady, level voice and to not move around at all. Cassel’s intensity really is effective in this instance because his portrayal feels real. His suppressed passion and his boiling-below-the-surface fire and brimstone attitude are tangible.
Another instance where the acting is really effective in using intensity to cause terror is in the scene where the Abbess discovers Agnes’s terrible secret. Geraldine Chaplin’s portrayal of the Abbess as a cold, unfeeling, harsh, almost evil woman comes across just in her reading of Agnes’s letter. The Abbess’s words, in a silent convent, fall hard on the concrete floors and walls; her voice is all Geraldine Chaplin needs to capture and keep her wards’ and her audience’s attention.
A third instance where the portrayal of Catholicism is spot on in the film is in the procession of St. Clare. The enormity of the procession, the candles, the sounds, and the solemnity all give a very realistic and ritualistic air to 17th century Spanish Catholicism.
On the other hand, the lack of religious iconography in people’s houses and in the streets and the lack of religion in the everyday lives of the other characters leaves something to be desired in the portrayal of Catholicism in people’s daily lives as opposed to just the lives of those dedicated to a convent or monastery.
Portrayal of Rape
The portrayal of rape in the film is really problematic because it takes away all culpability from the true sinner, Ambrosio. In his fall from grace in the novel, it is his choice to fall the first time, to have sex with Matilda, his fellow monk (though a female). In the film, Matilda practically rapes Ambrosio while he is in a stupor from receiving a poisonous sting from a centipede in his garden. Ambrosio’s memory of the sexual encounter with Matilda only comes to him in bits and pieces, which leaves him wondering if Matilda did actually have sex with him. Ambrosio’s vague memories of Matilda having sex with him act as a form of temptation in themselves. Are they real memories? Or, are they Ambrosio’s mind taking over and causing him to fantasize about inappropriate things? The confusion caused by Ambrosio’s lack of agency in the situation and vague memories also act as a way for the Devil to disarm Ambrosio. He not only is questioning his faith and his vows but also his own memory and mind. For Moll to take away Ambrosio’s agency in this instance puts all the blame on Matilda rather than both Matilda and Ambrosio sharing the culpability for this sin. This is wrong.
Another instance of all blame being removed from Ambrosio is in his rape of Antonia. Matilda provides him the idea, the means, and the method for gaining access to Antonia’s bedchamber as well as to her body. Upon entering the bedchamber, Ambrosio goes to Antonia, wafts the sprig of myrtle in her face (given to him by Matilda), and she awakens and pulls Ambrosio to her. Then, she kisses him. In this manner, Ambrosio no longer is raping Antonia, she is “asking for it,” even though she is technically under a spell. Ambrosio clearly feels no guilt for his actions, as he falls asleep, completely naked and uncovered, next to Antonia, in her bed, in her bedroom, with her mom in the room next door. He has no fear of discovery, no fear of repercussions. He is not responsible for his actions: Matilda told him to do it and Antonia pulled him to her. This is also wrong.
The inner turmoil Ambrosio experiences in the novel is not present in the movie, and the responsibility he takes for his actions is also not at all present in the film.
Though Moll claims he is trying to make Ambrosio a deeper and more sympathetic character, he does this by taking away any culpability for his actions that Ambrosio might have possessed that might have redeemed him. If anything, the portrayal of rape in the film blames women and shows a dislike for women that, while present in the novel, doesn’t go to near the extreme the film does.