Convento (Jarred Alterman, USA, 2010) * *


The Sao Francisco monastery in Portugal stands majestically over serene rivers, vibrant forests and orange deserts, each direction offering something new. Its antiquated features are irrefutably charming, its beauty immediate. If you look closely, you’ll see that its irrigation system is powered by a donkey circling the veranda. Each time it turns it pulls water from a well. And if you look a little closer, you’ll see that the donkey is in fact a fully functioning, nuts- and- bolts robot.

For the monastery, having once held twelve monks and an abbot, is now home to a family of Dutch émigrés; performance artist/gardener Geraldine Zwaaniken and her two adult sons, ‘kinetic artist’ Kristiaan and housekeeper Louis. The building teems with artificial life, as Kristiaan’s creations – combining skeletal parts, servomotors and reanimation- whirr, whizz, clunk and zoom around cloisters and corridors like Dr Moreau with a Meccano set.  There’s much to admire in his craft, especially when we step into his workshop full of half-made things slowly twitching (back) to life. A collection of mechanical birds tweets hello to each other, their voices eerily provided by human recordings – certainly an unusual but effective adaptation of the modest alarm clock.

And if we had perhaps more time to listen to Kristiaan or to simply see more of his works, this would be a fascinating study into a little- known genius.  But what makes Convento so unconventional a documentary, aside from its running time (55 minutes that, in another confounding of expectation, don’t pass by half as quickly as you’d hope) is the rather unique fact that its subjects don’t feel particularly obliged to make the most of the brevity. Worse, as we’re watching Geraldine preparing the dinner, all ingredients picked from the garden, her words stew longer than her vegetables. You get the impression that Alterman may have appeared unannounced on their doorstep, awestruck and camera in hand, and the family were too polite (or pompous) to turn him away. Indeed, given many of the exterior shots focusing on their shadows cast across the floor, we have a man who literally worships the ground they walk on.

Just as we’ve had enough of Geraldine explaining that she and her sons live in ‘‘the same life, the same moment, the same energy’’ to dismiss the whole bunch as arty, affected bo-hos, our suspicions are confirmed in one fell swoop. Kristiaan and Louis enter the frame dressed in oversized  spacesuits made from silver tin- foil. Why? Who knows? But at least we’re amused, for once. They pad around the desert for a bit, doing their best to ignore that old stickler, gravity. Then, in Robin Hood- style feathered hats and quivers, it’s time for a game of paintball. Their target: anything.  Whether cognisant of the fact that an unremarkable  hour is almost up, or a genuine insight into their ‘downtime’,  it certainly livens things up. The trouble is, why couldn’t the previous fifty minutes be this entertaining?

©D.Wakefield, 2011


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