Italians have been left shocked by a ferocious assault on Franciscan monks by hooded thugs at a monastery in the foothills of the Alps, which has been compared to incidents seen in the film "A Clockwork Orange."

Father Sergio Baldini, 48, the guardian of the San Colombano Belmonte monastery near Turin, and three elderly monks from the Franciscan order of Friars Minor, were having their evening meal when they were attacked by three hooded men who gagged and bound them before punching, kicking and beating them with clubs.

Father Baldini suffered severe head injuries but also has "serious respiratory problems" because he choked on his food while being assaulted, doctors say. He has had brain surgery and was in a coma.

Father Salvatore Magliano, 86, Father Emanuele Battagliotti, 81, and Father Martino Giurini, 76 suffered less serious injuries, but were still being treated in hospital today.

Speaking from his hospital bed, Father Battagliotti said the monks had been eating "a dish of spinach" when they heard noises outside.

"I got up to have a look, but the moment I got to the door I was attacked -- suddenly, immediately. I was struck on the head with a blow which made me totter," he said.

"Father Sergio (Baldini) came to my aid. He put himself in front of me to try and defend me, but he too was knocked down without mercy. They hit him until he stopped crying out. Then they beat Father Salvatore and Father Martin as well. It was terrible."

Cardinal Severino Poletto, the Archbishop of Turin, who visited the victims in hospital, said the attack was "beyond comprehension." The only possible explanation was that the assailants had been "either drugged or possessed, or both", he said.

Police said the motive appeared to robbery, although the monks only had "small amounts of money." A spokesman said: "Presumably the attackers thought they would find riches at the monastery."

Italian media compared the attack to "A Clockwork Orange," Anthony Burgess's story of violent young thugs, filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick.

Click here to read more on this story from the Times of London.