It's no wonder that Luis Buñuel wanted to turn "The Monk" into a movie. Once banned, now merely cherished, the 1796 novel is a lurid amalgam of religious devotion and sin, earthly temptations and supernatural doings. Buñuel never made his movie, but there have been numerous adaptations. The latest, from French director Dominik Moll, is a work whose elegant atmospherics ultimately overwhelm the story, even with the terrific Vincent Cassel in the title role.
Moll's version, arriving stateside almost two years after it opened in France, is a decided change of pace for the director of "With a Friend Like Harry" and new territory as well for Cassel. He's a usually kinetic performer with a devilish gleam in his eye, and the chance to watch him play the role of Ambrosio with intense stillness is the film's chief pleasure.
Abandoned as an infant and raised by Capuchin monks outside Madrid, Ambrosio is a celebrity among friars, his powerful sermons drawing huge crowds. The ardor of his message makes virtuous Antonia (Joséphine Japy) faint. Another young woman (Déborah François) devises an ingenious ruse to get close to him.
Halfway through the film, she gets very close to him indeed, and Moll's restraint gives way to a tastefully overwrought checklist of Gothic imagery. In the cloistered shadows and the harsh Castilian sun, the visuals are handsome, even as the movie threatens to tip into parody. Glimmers of the dark humor that fueled Moll's "Harry" and "Lemming" barely register; what abides are the flickers of self-knowledge as the good father turns bad.