17th-century Madrid looks like a pretty boring place to live. Young men find themselves consigned to dour monasteries, young women are forced to marry bumbling, rich husbands, and NO-ONE is allowed to have any sex. The fact that going to church seems to be the only way to get your kicks just about says it all. Enter brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassell), a prodigiously preachy Catholic monk whose passion in the pulpit has the ladies literally swooning in the pews. And, as the Beatles were to discover several centuries later, such talent and charisma inevitably attracts more than its fair share of groupies and stalkers - some of whom have more on their minds than the guarding of their virtues.
This is German director Dominik Moll's fourth feature, following 2000's impressive Harry, He's Here to Help and 2005's intriguing Lemming. It's a bit of an odd choice. Adapted from Matthew G. Lewis's Gothic novel of the same name, this story about a respected monk giving in to his baser impulses provoked moral outrage when it was first published in 1796. But what relevance does it have for audiences today?
The answer, unfortunately, is not much. Visually, it's stunning, channelling Caravaggio and Dreyer with painstaking chiaroscuro lighting. But plot-wise it plays out like a hornier version of 'Cadfael' - only nowhere near horny enough to make up for the tedium which dogs the vast majority of the film. Watching po-faced people hanging around in a selection of rooms and gardens wrestling earnestly with their existential and moral demons is not much fun. When a bit of sex does finally happen, the prudish camera usually chooses to look elsewhere. As a result, the most erotic bit in the whole film is when Ambrosio and one of his fans recite psalms at each other (while hanging around in a garden).
Without the sauce, all that's left is Ambrosio's interminable torment as he fights to suppress his natural urges. And in an age when most people just aren't that preoccupied with their immortal souls anymore, the question of whether or not to fornicate is considerably less troubling - and interesting - than it was 200 years ago.