Production compaines: Diaphana Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Director: Dominik Moll
Producer: Michel Saint-Jean
Starring: Vincent Cassel as Frère Ambrosio, Déborah François as Valerio, Joséphine Japy as Antonia, Sergi López as Le débauché, Catherine Mouchet as Elvire, Roxane Duran as Agnès, Geraldine Chaplin as L’abbesse, Jordi Dauder as Père Miguel, Frédéric Noaille as Lorenzo, Javivi as Frère Andrés (as Javivi Gil Valle), Martine Vandeville as Leonella, Pierre-Félix Gravière as Frère Iago, Ernst Umhauer as Le novice, Serge Feuillard as Le tuteur
Left on the steps of an isolated Spanish monastery as an infant, Ambrosio (Cassel) has grown up to be a celebrated priest, wowing the population of nearby Madrid with his radical sermons. But he's haunted by visions, as well as a dark secret kept by an oddly powerful woman (Francois). Meanwhile, young Antonia (Japy) is being wooed by the sexy Lorenzo (Noaille), a match her mother (Mouchet) approves but worries about. And no one has a clue that all of their fates are intertwined.
Based on the 18th century English gothic novel by Matthew Lewis (and set in Spain with French-speaking characters), the story is seriously intense. Besides the tortured account of Ambrosio's increasingly dark temptations, there's also a sideplot about a disgraced young nun (Duran) cruelly punished by her Prioress (Chaplin). And from the start it's clear that there's something not quite right about Antonia's romance with Lorenzo. Meanwhile, the Father Superior (Dauder) is making pronouncements that the devil has arrived, while a shifty parishoner (Lopez) lurks around the edges.
Moll assembles this in deep shadows with flickering candlelight and a surging score by Alberto Iglesias. There's some black wit in the way it's directed and edited, but this is a sombre film packed melodramatic glances and supernatural creepiness. It looks so fantastic that we're willing to follow it into some extremely grisly places, including ghostly apparitions and black miracles. And as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that it probably won't have a cheerful ending.
The acting is subtle and involving, with Cassel holding things together as the increasingly anguished Ambrosio, who never suspects that his troubled past has any relevance in his present life of holy devotion. But the various plot strands don't merge coherently, leaving us on the outside as things get progressively nasty, perhaps because Ambrosio begins to lose himself as well.
So by the time we reach the unsettling climax, we recoil at the horror of it all, but shrug and leave the cinema unmoved.