Based on Matthew Lewis's scandalous novel of 1796 (written when he was 19) this intriguingly fuses English Gothic with the wilder side of Spanish Catholicism.
Director Dominik Moll has investigated tormented psychologies before (Lemming, Harry, He's Here to Help) but never anything quite so lurid as this. Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), abandoned as an infant on the steps of a Capuchin monastery, rises to become one of Spain's most eloquent preachers and revered of holy men, drawing the faithful from miles around.
The arrival of a mysterious youth, Valerio, his face masked to hide terrible disfigurement, is a catalyst in the monastery's life. The newcomer alleviates Ambrosio's disabling headaches but also excites him with temptations the monk has never experienced.
His initial sin – the self-righteous punishment of a nun – is merely the prompt to an escalating sequence of crimes that ultimately enfold him in an Oedipal doom.
Moll is unafraid to mingle the real with the fantastical, in one sequence portraying a delirium as if in tribute to journeyman TV of 1970s vintage. He also has a fine eye for contrasting landscapes, setting the chiaroscuro of the monastery against the dazzling aridities of the Spanish countryside.
What a very strange film this is, so controlled and precise yet utterly outlandish in its conjuring of evil. Dan Brown should take a look, and ponder.