A fumbled French made attempt at adapting Matthew Lewis’s gothic classic THE MONK to the screen. The novel, originally published in 1796, was one of the high points of the gothic tradition, and one of the very few gothic novels that still holds up. The late Luis Bunuel co-wrote the screenplay of this 1972 adaptation (a.k.a. LE MOINE) and wanted to direct it was well—indeed, directing a film of THE MONK was said to be one of Bunuel’s lifelong ambitions. However, the job for some reason fell to the Greek born Adonis Kyrou, author of a renowned French text on surrealism and director of a handful of short films. The results were as you might expect.
Lewis’ novel, FYI, was adapted again in a 1990 British production and a 2011 Vincent Cassel headlined French effort. Neither was much of an improvement over this film.
Ambrosio is a celibate monk who likes to regale his parish with all the terrible things that will happen to them if they sin. Unfortunately Ambrosio finds himself erotically ensnared by Mathilde, an attractive young woman who happens to be an emissary of the Devil—and who initially masquerades as Rosario, a young man. Ambrosio and Mathilde commence a hot-and-heavy relationship based on sex, but before long Ambrosio’s eye starts to wander, fastening on the luscious young Antonia.
Antonia’s mother Elvira is bedridden, and Antonia asks Ambrosio to pray for the old woman. This he does, making several visits to Elvira and Antonia’s home in the hope of seducing the girl. When Antonia makes the mistake of telling Ambrosio she “loves” him he tries to rape her, only to be foiled in the act when Elvira walks in on them. Mathilde later visits Ambrosio and claims she can help him win over Antonia through supernatural means. She gives Ambrosio a magic mirror that shows Antonia undressing, which naturally helps convince him.
The two perform a satanic ritual, calling up a spirit that bequeaths a magic bough capable of opening Antonia’s door and rendering Ambrosio invisible. He wastes no time putting his depraved proclivities into action, but is once again interrupted by Elvira as he tries to ravish Antonia. In the resulting melee Ambrosio kills the old woman, thus turning himself into a murderer as well as a pervert.
The stubborn Ambrosio attempts to ravish Antonia a third time. By this point, however, he’s gone completely insane, and envisions Elvira in Antonia’s place. In his confusion he stabs the girl to death, for which he’s brought before the Spanish Inquisition together with Mathilde. Both are condemned to death, but then Mathilde makes Ambrosio a final infernal offer…
Part of the problem with this film is the simple fact that the once-transgressive material isn’t especially shocking by early 1970s standards—particularly in the wake of Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, which was released a year earlier and far outdoes this film in every possible aspect. Worse, director Adonis Kyrou helms in thoroughly bland fashion, failing to properly utilize the photography of the great Sacha Vierny (of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, BELLE DE JOUR and THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER) and resulting in a dull and uninspiring film that never approaches the novel’s lurid charge.
The script excises many of Matthew Lewis’s chaotic subplots—which likely accounts for the film’s oft-haphazard and incoherent narrative—as well as the serpent that sets the madness in motion by biting Ambrosio; here it’s made clear that Ambrosio’s own weaknesses precipitate his downfall rather than a Satanic influence. In another departure from the novel, the relationship between Ambrosio and his disguised companion Rosario has been pared down considerably (and a good thing, because actress Nathalie Delon, who essays the role, is never the slightest bit convincing as a man). Luis Bunuel fans will notice some familiar Bunuelian motifs, such as the spectral lamb that wanders into the church during one of Ambrosio’s sermons (recalling elements of Bunuel’s classic EXTERMINATING ANGEL), while Ms. Delon’s turn as a Satanic seductress directly recalls Silvia Pinal in a similar role in SIMON OF THE DESERT.
In the title role Franco Nero is half-good, which is to say he’s never too convincing as a devout monk but quite strong in the latter scenes, when Ambrosio is overtaken by madness. Franco does insanity quite well, as proven by his work in this film and A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY. Nicole Williamson is also memorably over-the-top as a Cannibalistic duke in cahoots with Mathilde, but this promising subplot, like so much else in this dull film, ultimately goes nowhere.
THE MONK (LE MOINE)
Director: Adonis Kyrou
Producer: Henry Lange
Screenplay: Luis Bunuel, Jean-Claude Carriere
Cinematography: Sacha Vierny
Editing: Eric Pluet
Cast: Franco Nero, Nicole Williamson, Nathalie Delon, Nadja Tiller, Eliana De Santis, Agnes Capri, Denis Manuel, Maria Machado, Philippe Clevenot, Louise Chevalier, Elisabette Wiene