Certain parts of Convento, the immersive documentary that had its area premiere Thursday as part of IFFBoston, seem too good to be completely true. With his profile of the Zwanikkens, a Dutch family who purchased a dilapidated former monastery in Portugal to live and work in, director Jarred Alterman stimulates viewers with an examination of each family member’s relationship with the natural world -- but in a manner that’s not so natural itself.
The 56-minute movie quickly establishes personalities for the family: mother Geraldine, the spiritual, gardening former dancer; brother Louis, the monastery’s unstressed caretaker; and brother Christiaan, the ambitious and inventive artist. The film’s real star, though, is not a family member, but Christiaan’s haunting “kinetic artwork”: he combines animal remains with steampunk mechanics to create an army of squeaking, twitching zombie-robots.
The pieces are undoubtedly fascinating -- but Alterman puts a great deal of effort into making them seem even more so. He arranges them in specific locations throughout the film to maximize their sensual provocation.
In one scene, Christiaan is shown furiously working in his studio as a dozen of his creations surround him, flashing, snapping, chirping, and spasming -- a morbid, mechanical menagerie. A cool image for sure, but it seems like such a work environment would be a bit distracting. The choreography of it all is a little to apparent, leaving the scene feeling contrived and a bit disingenuous.
In other scenes, the line between reality and filmmaking is further blurred as the mechanical sounds that appear to be emanating from the robots begin to blend with the soundtrack (a sparse, reserved work by Lawrence Dolan). His interventions end up producing engagingly composed and intensely rhythmic scenes, but they’re not exactly a true portrait of an artist.
During a talk-back following the screening, Alterman didn’t hide the fact that he staged many of the scenes and did extensive foley work to rhythmically sync the robotic noises with the soundtrack -- going as far to say that he hesitated to call Convento a documentary. But his transparency about his intentions doesn’t take away the film’s tendency to stray into a flashy advertisement for Christiaan (with whom Alterman has frequently collaborated).
The real joy of the film is in its quieter moments, most of which come from Geraldine, easily Convento’s most fully fleshed out character. As she gardens and cooks, she reminisces on her artistic beginnings, her spiritual values (she doesn’t believe in death, just moving to a new level of life), and the family’s history -- and through her, the audience gets a glimpse into the environment that produced these eccentric minds.
Louis, by far, gets the least amount of screen time. And it’s true that he is the least immediately compelling. But there’s some intrigue in that despite his carefree demeanor his work is really the most utilitarian of anyone’s. For all of Christiaan’s industrious work ethic, none of his creations (aside from a mill-churning donkey) have any apparent “function.” Louis’ relaxed connection with his surroundings, meanwhile, keeps the monastery from crumbling and the island’s wildlife thriving. It’s a thought-provoking contradiction, and one, had Alterman explored it more, that could have resulted in a more evenhanded film.