The Portuguese monastery of São Francisco de Mértola is over 400 years old. Situated at the spot where the Oeiras and Guadiana rivers meet (i.e., whatever the Portuguese equivalent of BFE is), the monastery was once the site of a vibrant religious community, and while haunting signs of this community have faded through the years, they are not gone. By the time the Zwanikken family moved there in 1980, the place was a legit ruin. The very fact that Geraldine and Krees Zwanikken — well-respected continental artists that they were — eschewed the comforts and praise of their urban environment to take up residence in what amounted to a completely isolated death trap without running water or electricity is enough to spur interest in them. However, what’s most fascinating about the family is the unique and somewhat disturbing artworks that their son Christiaan has permanently fused with their surname. Convento is an attempt to capture some of the essence of this odd family, to offer its audience a glimpse into the Zwanikken’s singular dynamic and breathtaking works, and it winds up a fairly beautiful work in its own right.
The time Convento spends with Geraldine (the matron of the house) is made up of languid, somewhat drawn-out scenes of her weeding the garden, weeding the pond, cooking, and only barely reminiscing about her departed husband, Krees. Seemingly devoid of guile, the former prima ballerina exudes a serene happiness, brought on by the simplicity and concreteness of her life apart from society. Of course, this happiness is a little batty, but that’s to be expected about a world-class dancer who would give up her career and pack it all in to spend the rest of her days making a dilapidated stone building more quirky.
The film’s most cinematically beautiful moments arrive courtesy of Geraldine’s son, Christiaan. An artist who works primarily with kinetic sculptures, Christiaan’s pieces are made up from the carcasses of animals he finds near the monastery. Inside his workshop (formerly the monastery’s chapel), we find a beautiful/terrifying (depending on your persuasion) array of animal bones, rotting bird heads, desiccated rodent corpses, and various and sundry other unpleasant natural processes going on that gradually prepare the artist’s materials. Mechanizing these skeletal remains and taxidermied bodies, Christiaan makes eerily hypnotic pieces that almost impossibly transcend the kitch-factor inherent in dead animal art.
As Convento’s director, Jarred Alterman claims a fairly varied CV, which includes directing episodes of Tom Goes To The Mayor, a Stripilates video, and an intriguing 2005 short doc about a piano factory in the Bronx and the folks who run it (Mott Music ). Alterman imbues this documentary with some visually striking and conceptually absurd moments that leaves the film precariously straddling the line between art film and documentary. It’s a stylistic and journalistic risk that occasionally frustrates, but it ultimately begs the question as to why more documentaries don’t risk as much. Alterman is pretty much just having a lot of fun with this film, and it’s hard not to enjoy the palpable excitement imparted by his lens.