A curmudgeonly octogenarian offers his crumbling Danish castle to the Russian Orthodox Church, but then clashes with the new nun-in-chief about how to run the place in accomplished docu “The Monastery.” Using material shot sporadically over six years, TV-experienced helmer Pernille Rose Gronkjaer builds an affectionate but admirably unsentimental portrait of her eccentric, headstrong protagonists. Pic, which won first prize at top-tier docu fest IDFA, could win hymns of praise from auds and TV buyers when it screens at Sundance next month. However, theatrical distribs might justifiably be more cautious given film’s offbeat subject matter.
With his snowy, spade-shaped beard and threadbare scarecrow’s duds, pic’s main man Jorgen Lauersen Vig looks like a character from some blackly comic or angst-ridden 19th-century Scandinavian novel come to life. Via conversation with pic’s mostly offscreen helmer and lenser Pernille Rose Gronkjaer (who occasionally wanders into a shot when summoned to help shift furniture around), it’s revealed that confirmed bachelor Vig bought the remote and ramshackle castle of Hesbjerg 50 years ago. His dream was always to turn it into a monastery in order to get right with God before he dies.
Although born and raised a Protestant, Vig doesn’t seem to mind which Christian faith might come to Hesbjerg. (Indeed, judging by some posters of Buddha seen at one point, some Buddhists have passed through the place already.)
Vig persuades the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow to consider using Hesbjerg, and, before long, construction-savvy Sister Amvrosya shows up with a small entourage to try the place out. Over the course of several visits over a few years, Amvrosya and some more nuns settle in, but the pragmatic and tidy-minded bride of God tussles continually with Vig over which repairs should be done first and who — her or him — is really in charge of the place.
Despite Amvrosya and Vig’s cultural and personality clashes, Gronkjaer captures moments that illustrate their growing affection for one another, even a kind of platonic love that grows out of their shared pursuit of a spiritual way of life. Scenes of the nuns’ long, mesmeric, music-suffused services are juxtaposed with ones showing Vig and Amvrosya bickering comically over domestic chores. The combined effect brings to mind last year’s award-winning docu on monastic life, “Into Great Silence,” crossed with some jocular television DIY makeover show with a touch of “Big Brother.”
Thankfully, Gronkjaer’s low-key, observational aesthetic and use of 16mm stock, which proves particularly apt for the light-infused spaces of the castle, prevents pic from seeming like a reality-TV show. Editing by Pernille Bech Christensen propels story forward at a nice, steady pace but also takes welcome timeouts for inserted nature shots that illustrate the changing of the seasons. Score by Johan Soderqvist also adds a classy touch.