Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Le moine (1972)

... aka: I Satans Vold
... aka: Monaco, Il
... aka: Monje, El
... aka: Monk, The

Directed by:
Adonis Kyrou

Repressed (ain't they all) priest Father Ambrosio (Franco Nero) rules over a 16th French monastery with an iron fist and expects the others there to live with the same level of strict discipline he does. He's so charismatic that he's attained a sort of local celebrity status, with some people believing he's the reincarnation of an apostle and others coming from many miles away just to see one of his impassioned sermons. But every man - no matter how devout - has their weakness as we will soon see. Late one night, a young fellow monk-in-training, Brother John, comes to see him and to confess two little secrets he's been struggling with. The first is that he's fallen in love with Father Ambrosio and the second is that he's not really a he at all, but an attractive woman named Mathilde (Nathalie Delon), who's only posing as a teen boy to get close to the priest. After revealing her true self to Ambrosio, showing some persistence and proving her love and dedication to him by attempting to kill herself if he won't be with her, Mathilde manages to successfully seduce him. Afterward, she promises their love as well as her true identity will just be between them; assuring him that "the vow of chastity is unnatural."

Ambrosio struggles briefly with paranoia and the fear his soul is going to be damned but finds he cannot resist his new lover's hold over him. The affair carries on in secret for awhile, but it soon becomes clear that Mathilde isn't what she seems; she's actually an emissary of the devil who's on earth to facilitate temptation, sin and destruction, as well as gather souls for her dark lord down below. She first encourages the priest to seek other lovers. In fact, she says she quite likes the idea. Ambrosio finds himself drawn to the very young Antonia (Eliana De Santis), the barely-teenage daughter of an ill woman (Nadja Tiller) he's been praying for. When Antonia's mother catches him trying to molest her girl, she banishes him from her home and asks him never to return. But Ambrosio must have her and Mathilde is aware of another way he may be able to get the virginal young beauty...

Nicol Williamson has an entertaining supporting role as the evil, devil-worshipping Duke of Talamur to help liven the dreary proceedings up a little. He's in cohorts with Mathilde (who bides her time between the monastery and the Duke's castle) and seems to have an unnatural interest in young peasant girls; whom we later learn the duo have actually been killing and eating. A pregnant nun (Elisabette Wiener) is taken off to be tortured as per the priest's orders. Ambrosio rolls around in thickets to punish himself, imagines a horned sheep roaming the aisles while he's in the middle of a sermon and gives another monk a heart attack by confessing he's recently indulged in fornication, sorcery and murder. Denis Manuel shows up at the very end in a great bit as head of the Holy Inquisition, who explains in graphic detail one of their favorite torture techniques. Satan himself also makes a rather unmemorable special appearance during a black mass scene set in a cemetery crypt.

Le moine was one of many films made in the wake of Ken Russell's controversial The Devils (1971) and covers most of the same bases, just on a smaller and less visually impressive scale. The budget is lower (made quite evident by the inclusion of some stock shots at the end, poorly executed special effect jump cuts and cheap-o day glow green lighting effects), the acting isn't as good and the film isn't as visionary, shocking, thoughtful, gutsy or powerful as Russell's movie. Thematically, it also has nothing new to add to this subgenre of films, with the well-worn themes of sexual repression, religious hypocrisy and class stature all getting the spotlight. Not to say this is a terrible film by any means. It's simply been done better elsewhere.

One thing this does boast is a screenplay co-written by none other than Luis Buñuel and his frequent writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière, which was based on the novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Buñuel was once slated to direct as well, and it undoubtedly would have been far more memorable if he had. Instead, the project was passed on to novice director Adonis Kyrou, a film critic who'd authored a book on Buñuel and had previously made just a few short films. Sadly, the Greek-born Kyrou completely fails to distinguish the material. But all ended happily for Buñuel either way: he ended up making The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) the same year, which netted the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Pretty much written off by critics of its day (rightfully so for the most part), this didn't merit much of a release here in America despite being shot in English. The version I viewed was in decent shape aside from being a little too dark, which makes it difficult to appreciate talented cinematographer Sacha Vierny's work. It's neither scary nor dramatically affecting, and not in any way innovative, but it's fairly watchable if you're not expecting too much and the ending is pretty amusing. There's been no VHS or DVD release in America, though a DVD was released in Spain.


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