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A friar breaks bad in ‘The Monk’

‘THE MONK’ ★★½

Ambrosio Vincent Cassel

Valerio Deborah Francois

Antonia Josephine Japy

The Debauchee Sergi Lopez

Mother Superior Geraldine Chaplin

ATO Pictures presents a film directed by Dominik Moll. Written by Moll and Anne-Louise Trividic, based on the 1796 novel by Matthew Lewis. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for some sexuality, brief graphic nudity and violent images). Opening Friday at Facets Cinematheque.

Updated: April 9, 2013 11:01AM

On a dark and stormy night in 1595, an infant is left outside a Capuchin monastery near Madrid. Three crows perched on a crucifix alight on him and peck away at the child until a friar recovers the foundling. The unholy trio will resume their pecking in the last scene of “The Monk” (“Le Moine”), a slick gothic tale of a friar gone wrong.

Director Dominik Moll and co-writer Anne-Louise Trividic adapt “The Monk: A Romance,” the first and last novel by 18th century English author Matthew Lewis (also filmed in 1972 and 1990). “Like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ two centuries later, ‘The Monk’ created an international sensation and made its [teenage] author an overnight celebrity,” writes Victoria Nelson, author of “Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods and the New Supernatural” (2012).

Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) grows up and joins the order. (By the way, the word “cappuccino” comes from the brown hue of the robes worn by the Capuchin Brothers.) The charismatic Ambrosio brews sermons that jolt. “His faith is so alive, it swept my heart away,” gushes Antonia (Josephine Japy) just before fainting. She will enter his dreams, kneeling in prayer, with her face hidden under a vivid red robe.

Another character appears with no visible face: Valerio (Deborah Francois), a novice of few words. In the book, Valerio wears a shadowy cowl, but Moll replaces that with a leather mask, laced up the back, that covers her burned face. Valerio turns out to be a woman disguised as a man, with designs on the flesh and soul of Ambrosio, originally described by Lewis as so “strict an observer of Chastity, that He knows not in what consists the difference of Man and Woman.”

The rest of the plot takes Ambrosio to the beds of both women and his mother, leading to a deal steeped in evil. The Inquisition is “the craftiest trick the Devil has ever played on the Catholic Church,” deems the fallen friar. Cue those crows.

Moll played more disturbing tricks on his characters — and his viewers — in “Lemming” (2005) and “With a Friend Like Harry” (2000). “The Monk” is insufficiently lurid and discreetly hysterical. Moll squanders obvious subtexts, both homoerotic and heretical, in his source material.

The 1796 novel belongs to “a Protestant tradition of demonizing Catholicism as the mutant, alien Other,” according to one scholar. Another identifies Lewis as the “gay son [with issues] of adulterous slave owners.” Yet another notes that gays were tortured, pilloried and hung in Amsterdam and London at the time. The Marquis de Sade lauded “The Monk” and its gothic genre as “the necessary fruit of the Revolutionary shocks felt by all Europe.”

“The Monk” ought to titillate and transgress more. Moll can confess to doing neither.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance reviewer.

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