Sao Fransico, a 400 year old monastery nestled in the hills of Portugal, was built by an abbot and his 12 monks. It had once fallen into disrepair, walls crumbling, overgrown with vegetation and the intricate water system dried up. These days, restored to its beauty, home of a lush garden, an algae green pond teeming with plant and fish life, and activity, Sao Fransisco houses the Zwankken family. Mother Geraldine and her two sons Christiaan and Louis are the caretakers of this historic place. Not content to revive their own home, Christiaan has developed a part of the abbey as his artist workshop.
“Convento” is a 56 minute documentary by filmmaker Jarred Alterman exploring the Zwankken family and the kinetic sculptures conceived by the mind of son Christiaan. A complex melding of the natural and the machine, his robotic art pieces are at once beautiful and yet things nightmares are made of. Collecting parts of animals that, through the natural cycle of life die around the abbey, they are then turned into new beings, a steampunk explosion of madness. A chattering bird skull extended on a metal rotating pole, crying out from the beyond or maybe has come to life, telling us a story. We see rabbit skulls on the end of two servos that twist and turn and then unexpectedly bash together, as if they were fighting in the afterlife. A metallic ant sits in an outdoor walkway, head twisting and listening for its next prey; it’s a Nine Inch Nails video beset in some of the most beautiful backgrounds you can imagine. But not all of his artwork is bizarre. Christiaan has mended the old water well, previously powered by the convent’s animals, into its own practical sculpture, bringing the much needed water up from twelve meters below via a complex system of cogs and pulleys to feed the life that now surrounds the area. While Christiaan is clearly the engineer of the family, more content to dig through the heaps of recyclables at the dump, his brother Louis is the caretaker of the animals, days spent feeding the ducks, geese and caring for his lifelong friend Doenja, a horse he’s raised since a youth, and mother Geraldine handles the gardening. While there is a slight spotlight shined into Geraldine’s past as a dancer and the loss of her husband, very little is offered as to the motivations or design work of Christiaan’s artwork or his place in the art world.
Alterman’s beautifully shot “Convento” offers a look into the wildly captivating world of the Zwankkens. Lawrence Dolan’s dissonant and ethereal score emphasizes the landscape of contrasts present at the convent and plays well alongside the equally offsetting sounds of mayhem the pieces make throughout the convent. What “Convento” does is open a door to something strangely beautiful. Like the shiny metallic moon-man suit, bouncing along outside the convent in the hills of Portugal, the world of the Zwankken’s is a world of contrasts, of the natural and the modern, the metal meeting the flesh and bone. It is a world that is enthralling but ultimately one that may leave you with far more questions than answers.