The Zwanikken clan story is not your Daddy’s family tales. Back in 1980 Geraldine and Kees (ballerina and photographer respectively) needed a creative spark, and together with their two children (Christiaan and Louis) they abandoned Holland for a decrepit convent in a remote Portuguese village, rebuilding the monastery as both a home and workshop for their varying endeavors. Situated between two rivers, the building's water wheel was put back to use and the land was soon fit to live off of. Their work in art continued, with Christiaan following in their footsteps (unlike his sibling, Louis, a quieter lad who enjoys giving tours around the compound and writing poetry) in a unique way — using junk electronics and the skeletons of long-gone animals, the deceased creature is reborn mechanically and controlled by computers, ranging from a donkey that moves water between two points and a bird that sings eerie tunes. This work has been part of various exhibitions all over the world, and the "biomechanoid zoologist" splits his time between the convent and studios in both Amsterdam and NYC.
While it's a story that screams for some sort of film adaptation, thankfully, Jarred Alterman's "Convento" is an art-documentary hybrid that tastefully observes the life and work of the Zanikkens while also using the medium to not only replicate the feeling of one of Christiaan's reanimated beasts, but to cherish life itself. It should be noted that this review is of the “extended-cut” of the movie, with a number of collaborations between Alterman and C. Zanikken popping up after the credits roll. These inclusions at first sound like superficial padding (and more bang for your buck considering the film is only about 50 minutes long), but their presence feels right, continuing the artists' fascination with life, death, and bizarre rebirth. After the main feature is put to rest and the magic on screen ceases, another, much weirder film begins, connecting the themes and the structure together — a very admirable experiment, one that defies general documentary conventions, but also leaves a conflicting emotional response. But more on that a bit.
Aside from a few helpful title cards, the movie begins with the journey towards the Zwanikken home in a slow, peaceful boat ride, establishing an visual aesthetic used throughout the piece that gives the residence a feeling of majesty. Upon arrival, the focus becomes split among the mother and sons (unfortunately, father/husband Kees passed away some years ago), who all exhibit their daily routines and also delve a bit into the history of their tenure at the refashioned monastery. Geraldine talks about reviving the soil to grow food as she munches on some ripe vegetation; Louis takes care of their chickens and horses with love, noting that “people are boring”; and Christiaan, when not tinkering with weird sculptures in his workshop, scours a nearby junk-yard for useful parts. Sporadically, the director intercuts some family-shot Super 8 footage, intimate moments in the early days of the convent residence. The grain and coloring of the stock are quite nice, offering a nostalgic-fueled contrast to the present, flat cinematography.
Not to belittle any part of the camera-work, though, as the slow panning and dolly movements complement the ruminating tone. The cinematography rightly takes a more confident, still approach when capturing the mechanized creatures — as they awaken with their jerky motions and slow demeanor, they really do feel like they’re coming back to life, re-learning how to move and use their bodies. It’s eerie, but also overwhelmingly magnificent. As the film progresses, the animals get weirder (forget walking, these things can talk and sing), but the scenes still remain captivating; unfortunately, other eccentric turns don’t fair as well. Sequences with the brothers dressed as medieval characters or a person in a gray blow-up suit walking the plains aren’t terrible, but they feel out of place and maybe a bit too playful — those less enthused might feel frustrated and ponder the point of their inclusion at all.
End credits generally give a sense of comforting closure, but after the overly blithe television-esque run-down (picture + name, and even the animals nab a credit) the rug is pulled and we’re immediately thrust into something new. What follows are three short, very experimental works: one involves Christiaan’s robotic artwork, another a poem read over imagery, and the final a stop-motion animation of the earth caving in. While the act of concluding a movie and then more or less starting things up again goes along with the theme of this one (recreating life) in a very fitting way, it’s still difficult to not feel drained by the experiment, and it’s almost impossible to re-invest your interest completely. Upon reflection it’s a brave move, but it’s got a hard-to-shake uneasy feeling attached to it: the direction the movie takes makes sense logically, but it doesn’t really hit any emotional and intellectual buttons — the decision is laudable, but it probably could’ve been executed more effectively.
Minor gripes aside, “Convento” is still a worthwhile experience, with Alterman taking an already intriguing story and telling it in an unorthodox, interesting way. [B]