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Horny Holy Men! The Monk Crosses Godly Rites and Vile Sin

Here’s proof of the continuity of the human imagination: If you were an HBO exec cooking up an adults-only show about the perverse doings in a medieval monastery, your vision of the first season’s soft-core outrageousness would no doubt resemble The Monk, Matthew Lewis’s 1796 genderfuck of a gothic novel. Lewis’s book revels in horny holy men, horrific violence, hidden pregnancies, dark sorcery, and—saints preserve us!—the spoiling of the young woman who posed for a monk’s treasured portrait of the Holy Virgin. In this film adaptation, director Dominik Moll simmers a story that could easily boil over. He gives us tense, hushed scenes of revered monk Ambrosio (the superb Vincent Cassel) struggling with the internal (crippling headaches) and the infernal (percolating lusts); as the latter seize him, and as his brothers warn that some evil has been loosed in their Capuchin monastery, Ambrosio comes ever closer to consorting with the kind of dark powers he is forever fulminating against to his parishioners. Meanwhile, Moll generates pleasurable shivers by showing us the new masked monk who seems peculiarly interested in Ambrosio. In the middle sections, the film seems somewhat arbitrary in its leaps from the story of Ambrosio to that of some at-first unrelated lovers, and at times the tasteful restraint dampens the lurid fun: Why doesn’t the demon-possessed shepherd get some dialogue? But the finale, in which godly rites are juxtaposed against the vilest of sins, builds to an unholy power.

 
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