Monty Python taught that "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," but here is a film suggesting that the Inquisition, when most needed, tends to show up too late.
17th Century Spain. Ambrosio is left, as an infant, on the steps of a Capuchin monastery, where, after a time jump, he has evolved into their most powerful preacher (Vincent Cassel). Villagers, aristocrats and farmers gather from miles around to hear his homilies. He is the most revered man in the region.
Ambrosio listens--with perhaps excessive interest?--to a man's confession of rape and incest. He delivers soul-shaking sermons with shocking brevity, then breaks off abruptly, reminding me somewhat of Peter Finch's Jeremiads in NETWORK. He turns monastic rules upside-down to welcome a masked stranger into their midst, an individual who cannot participate in canonical activities because of the wax mask that hides the professed burns on his face.
The masked stranger, Valerio, has mysterious powers of healing the migraines Ambrosio suffers, assuring him a permanent place in the monastery. The identity of the masked stranger can be found by anyone referring to the IMDb, so I will not supply that spoiler here. Suffice it to say that a tide of latent sexuality swells beneath the calm goings-on of the monastery, and that Ambrosio falls victim to it in a decidedly Lynchian fashion. He quickly shifts from victim to predator, and from orthodoxy to heresy. And, yes. The Spanish Inquisition rolls in at the last minute, but not in time to prevent Valerio from committing the ultimate heresy.
The critical complaints about this film have ranged from lukewarm to downright unkind: the visual effects are excessive (in truth, they are as organic to the film as anything by Cocteau), the theology is contrived, the imagery is overly-symbolic, Ambrosio's pastoral advice is "hollow", the gothic shocks of the film (based on a 1796 novel) are no longer shocking, and so forth.
Even if I concede all that, there are too many merits to Dominik Moll's fourth feature to shuffle it aside: his script very neatly compresses a sprawling 500 pg. novel into a fine period suspenser. Moll bravely takes on religious themes at a time when Europe is the least Catholic it has ever been, and does it without an ounce of irony or parody. Gérard Hardy, best known for splashy sound designs in films like THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) & AMELIE (2001) here returns to the subtle soundscapes of Moll's [[ASIN:B00005NTN4 With A Friend Like Harry]]. The score is higher in the mix in THE MONK, but I never found it to interfere with Hardy's delicate work.
Finally, if there was any question remaining that Vincent Cassel is capable of anything, this film should put that to rest. He just blows away any Delons or Depardieus or Auteuils...or just name anyone in the pantheon of great French movie actors. Cassel's face refutes any argument that too much was elided from the novel, because it fills in all the gaps. I believe this is a movie that will reward viewers on repeated viewings.