Jarred Alterman's "Convento" is a documentary about art, but it's also an art object. Profiling a trio of creatively inclined relatives holed up in a centuries-old monastery in southeastern Portugal, Alterman showcases their ominous, mystifying and hugely innovative work by reflecting it with a likeminded technique. While it runs only 50 minutes (not counting an additional 18 minutes of material included in its theatrical run), "Convento" takes a lot longer to process. It belongs in a museum or, at the very least, viewing parties with ample mind-altering substances available at the door.
Then again, "Convento" has the power to make even the most sober mind trip out. Alterman's focus is the Zwanikken family, headed by former prima ballerina Geraldine, who left Holland for the monastery with her photographer husband Kees and their children Christiaan and Louis in 1980. While Kees died years ago, the boys stayed put. Now a seasoned matriarch of her self-made castle, Geraldine oversees the day-to-day of the Convento Sao Francisco while her grown sons attend to other, stranger endeavors. "Convento" has no narrative thrust aside from inhabiting this odd world, where ancient, mystical feelings meld with avant-garde inspiration.
The real star of this show is not the family but the otherworldly objects they churn out, particularly Christiaan's "kinetic sculptures"–automated metallic insects and robotic sticks with bird heads that move independently of the human hand. The dead wildlife serve as a recurring Greek chorus. Alterman presents these creations with no firm explanation, instead simply observing the cyborgs' blend of natural forces and intervention. A disorienting, dreamlike sound design draws out the otherworldly qualities of the animated sculptures with a persistently hypnotic effect.
Those seeking more insight into the evolution of Christiaan's work or its reception around the world should look elsewhere. Alterman keeps the focus so deeply rooted in the titular setting that it exists on another plane of reality. His aims are less portraiture than exoticism, with the kinetic sculptures' apparent intelligence lending the aura of science fiction.
But there's another more profound fiction that "Convento" sets forth — an alternative approach to self-sustained community living divorced from the dramas of contemporary society. Flashbacks to Geraldine's earlier career on the stage create a telling contrast with the simplicity of her current surroundings. Surrounded by an empty horizon and two converging rivers, the monastery floats on the inspiration of its three residents. Alterman, also the film's cameraman, develops "Convento" into less of a physical escape than utopian state of mind.
That, at least in theory, excuses the lack of context for Christiaan's mechanical creations. They are extraordinary to watch and brilliantly realized with rich cinematic language. However, because "Convento" delves into the origin of the family's unique environment, the kinetic sculptures beg for more explanation that never arrives (not even in the extended cut, which wanders even further into a surreal domain). Nevertheless, Alterman's defiance of clean explanations boldly infuses "Convento" with the same mentality underscoring Christiaan's spiritually endowed robots. By making the inanimate animate, they make nature come to life, and so does "Convento."
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having already played successfully at numerous festivals following its premiere at the SXSW Film Festival last year, "Convento" opens this Friday at the reRun Gastropub in Brooklyn. Factory 25 will also release the film on DVD, where it is likely to find its core audience among fine art fans.