2007 SUNDANCE WORLD DOCUMENTARY FEATURE! “The Monastery” is a curious little film. On the surface, it’s a story about one man’s mission to create an Orthodox monastery in Denmark, and along the way it manages to say something about everyone’s desire to be remembered after they pass away.
The 82-year old Mr. Vig – who looks like a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Rasputin – is pursuing his dream of creating the monastery at a place called Hesbjerg Castle. Nuns led by Sister Ambrosija come from Moscow to evaluate the castle’s suitability and begin repairs. Ambrosija is quite a taskmaster, and soon has Vig dutifully joining in, even as he disagrees with her dealings with the patriarchate.
Shot in such a way as to make the castle seem like it resides in another world, “The Monastery” is interesting enough as a chronicle of what is, at its heart, a massive home improvement project. The elderly Vig cleans the attic (there is a priceless shot of the wizened priest sitting on a broken down couch, cradling a plaster Buddha), fixes a radiator, and pulls up rotten boards, all while describing his desire to create something of permanence in a surprisingly candid manner.
But Vig is nothing compared to the nuns, who pray six or seven hours a day when they aren’t cleaning the castle or averting their eyes from Vig’s bohemian neighbor who lets them share his crops (excepting the cannabis).
Director Pernille Rose Grønkjær doesn’t dwell on cultural differences, but rather the conflict between Vig and Ambrosija. Vig is sanguine – as only an old man can be – about his shortcomings, he’s fixated on people’s noses, he’s never been in love, and he’s only ever been close to one person: his father, while the sister has her own plans.
And so it goes, even among the upper ranks of the Russian Orthodox church. Vig, a lifelong virgin, admits to being baffled by the sister, thought I could’ve told him experience with the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily convey understanding.