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Giving in to the temptations of Gothic

by
02 May 2012

Stephen Brown on current film releases

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AS A film, the novel on which The Monk (Cert. 15) is based has already had a couple of outings. Luis Buňuel and Jean-Claude Carrière scripted a typically anti-clerical romp in 1972, and there was the 1990 version (aka Seduction of a Priest) directed by Francisco Lara Polop. An opera was based on the story, as well as several plays. There is even a musical currently in development.

All these owe their origins to Matthew Lewis’s Gothic novel, published at the end of the 18th century, subsequently referred to in Northanger Abbey, and also the subject of a poem by Byron. Going back to film adaptations, this new one is probably the most restrained telling. The director, Dominik Moll, has gone so far as to describe his treatment of the themes as Protestant, which, in effect, brings him much nearer to Lewis than the other filmmakers.

Vincent Cassel (the overbearing choreographer in Black Swan) plays Ambrosio, a Capuchin friar revered for his gifts as a preacher and confessor. The setting is 17th-century Spain. A masked postulant is presented to the community; the face, it would seem, is hidden on account of severe burns. In fact, as Ambrosio discovers, there is no such disfigurement, and Valerio (Déborah François) is an attractive young woman.

Moll rather leaves it to us to de­cide at this point if there is a super­natural element at work. It could be a satanic plot to test Ambrosio’s virtue, or perhaps more an echo of Kazantzakis’s preface to The Last Temptation of Christ, which speaks of “the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh”.

At first, Ambrosio is more sinned against than sinning, but gradually he develops a liking for sexual adventure, wronging others in the process. It may well be true that Moll is not that interested in Roman Catholic excesses, but this production has copious visual indulgences of its own, as the battle for Ambrosio’s soul commences. One sees traces of Ken Russell and Pasolini in many an image. Ghosts, nightmares, the flames of hell — all play their part in what eventually becomes a sub-Faustian plot, albeit with Oedipal and redemptive twists.

The forces of orthodoxy and oppression continue in this version to be represented by the Inquisition, but the film is not offering an alternative morality. Ambrosio clearly transgresses, but whose fault is it? As confessor, he offers penitents the mantra “Satan has only the power we give him,” which would appear to place all responsibility for our actions ultimately on ourselves — very Protestant, inasmuch as there is no reckoning with the overwhelming forces (whether supernatural, physical, or social) that shape individuals and our world.

Moll knows better than this. We have only to look at some of his earlier films (Harry, He’s Here to Help; Lemming, etc.) to see how people are often in the grip of powers beyond all reason.

THE actor Michael Sheen played several other famous people — H. G. Wells, Nero, Kenneth Williams, David Frost, Brian Clough, and Tony Blair (thrice) — before tackling the role of Jesus. Neither Sheen nor the director of The Gospel of Us (Cert. 12A), Dave McKean, is a believer, but they share a fascination with Christ, working for more than two years on an event that culminated in a 1000-strong community project set in south Wales over the 2011 Easter weekend (Features, 29 April 2011).

Now a film, the plot uses what the press pack describes as one of the defining narratives of our times. The Passion of Port Talbot was a contemporary retelling of the road to Calvary. From all accounts, the street-theatre production was highly moving, and I guess you would have had to be there to absorb its full impact. The film, by employing cinematic grammar (bleached and sepia images, step-printing, slow motion, time lapse, modelling, etc.) alongside conventional dramatic techniques, powerfully tells its tale.

As with the medieval Mystery plays, there is a freshness through being rooted in the everyday lives of ordinary people. In many ways, the crucifixion now depicted is that of a community. The M4 flyover rent Port Talbot asunder at a time when its people were systematically being deprived of their traditional industries. In Owen Sheers’s scripted play, a new threat comes by way of ICU (note the pun), an all-but-faceless corporation that fails to see the “you” in anyone. Rather, it treats residents as units of consumption oblivious of the seeping away of the town’s lifeblood.

ICU has a secret Passover Project, one where a huge untapped resource beneath Port Talbot is deemed more valuable than the people living on top. The return of the Teacher (Sheen), who has been missing for 40 days and nights, poses a challenge to the Company. He sees only people, precious in themselves, and dares them to see him for what he is. In 12 instalments, each with a title such as “And the dead shall live”, we are shown familiar parallels to the Gospel narratives. In an evocation of baptism where Jesus nearly drowns, there is the strongest sense that this is a dying to the old life before embracing the new one.

A few ham sandwiches are suffi­ciently shared to feed thou­sands. Divided brothers (another pun coming up), Lee and John, dwell among the tombs of a churchyard, until the Teacher sees them as they might wonderfully become. All of these scenes were to be found in the original outdoor pageant. What the film’s director deftly adds is an interior mono­logue. Phantoms of the Teacher’s past emerge to remind, comfort, and alarm him. Supremely, this comes into effect on the cross, when, having been amnesiac till then, he recalls, by way of a video diary that he kept during his 40-day sojourn, who he is.

Not only that: he brings Port Talbot back to life again by a recita­tion of its past glories. The crucifix­ion becomes a re-membering of a dismembered community, and paves the way to resurrection. Blaise Pascal declared in his Pensées that Jesus would be in agony until the end of the world. We get this loud and clear in the film, but, just as Pascal also went on to say “We must not sleep during that time,” so a wake-up call brings the piece to a fitting climax.

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