An unusual, lightly surreal, and unorthodox documentary by Jarred Altermann, Convento takes an unconventional approach that accentuates its subjects, and never exploits them.
The short doc (roughly an hour in length) follows the Zwanikken family (mother Geraldine and her sons Christiaan and Louis) as they farm a vacant, 400-year-old monastery in Portugal. They’ve lived there since the early 1980s, when they moved from Holland as family. (It’s eventually revealed that the family patriarch died not long after.)
Geraldine (a prima ballerina who abruptly switched to alternative dance before giving up the form altogether) shares a fondness for cooking and works with her boys on designing a variety of landscaping and photography projects. Christiann is a self-styled kinetic artist who constructs animated sculptures from junk and the skulls and bones of the local fauna. Louis, the more introverted of the three, is content to farm and tend to the livestock.
Altermann wisely avoids putting forth a Grey Gardens-esque portrait of a freakish family in favor of something more subtle. He peppers the film with dreamlike sequences of Christiaan’s artwork — rabbit, ant, mule, and bird automatons that sometimes call to mind the creations of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay — as they infuse and redefine an ancient place with a dreamlike quality. An audio-visual tone poem wrapped around a documentary profile, his film is less something to look at and more of a companion piece to the Zwanikkens’ artwork.
Convento is showing exclusively at the Texas Theatre.