Unorthodox subjects demand an equally unorthodox documentary — an “unortho-doc?” — like “Convento,” a quiet and curious film about a quiet and curious family living in a former monastery in Portugal, the Convento Sao Francisco de Mertola. They’re the Zwanikkens: mother and former prima ballerina Geraldine, animal and nature lover Louis, and Christiaan, the “kinetic artist” who spends most of his time designing bizarre sculptures, like the one above, that fuse animal bones and remains with working robotics to create moving (practically living) works of art. In this former house of God, Christiaan gets to play God himself, giving life to these weird little robo-beasts.
Little attention is given by director/producer/cinematographer/editor Jarred Alterman to the creative impulses that first gave birth to this very strange passion. Rather than looking into the minds of the Zwanikkens, it attempts to replicate how the Zwanikkens look out at their world, through the careful observation of their daily lives and the lush grounds of the Convento Sao Francisco. Alterman’s camera is constantly gliding around his subjects, and its smooth, constant motion echoes the robotic movements of Christiaan’s artwork. The beauty of simple images like water rushing through an antique well or flowers rustling in the wind help us to understand the Zwanikkens’ unusual living arrangements: growing their own food and recycling the junk they find in a nearby dump into gadgets they can use to power their home.
I would have loved to learn more about how Christiaan’s work has been received by art critics, how much interaction the Zwanikkens have with their neighbors (and what those neighbors think of them), and the exact particulars of how this Dutch family came to own this Portugese monastery. But for 50 brief but captivating minutes, I was invited into their strange, occasionally disturbing, and frequently lovely world. This unortho-doc ultimately doesn’t need to explain much more about its subjects’ motivations because its images provide their own explanation. The perpetually flowing visuals create such a sense of serenity that you don’t want them to end. They make it easy to understand why no one would want to leave this mystical, magical place.