Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Old Man and the Nun

By David Luhrssen
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A grumpy old man who decides to convert his run-down mansion into a convent winds up sparring with the mother superior, only to find faith in the end. On the surface it has the ring of a 2 a.m. selection on TCM with Walter Mathau under a gray toupee and Ingrid Bergman in a habit. On the contrary, it really happened and was documented in an inventive form by The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, a Sundance prizewinner out now on DVD.

The story unfolds in Denmark when the eccentric Mr. Vig offers to donate his castle to a group of Eastern Orthodox nuns. He is cranky but mild mannered and erudite, with stringy white hair trailing from an assortment of odd furry hats, a whispy beard and spectacles perched precariously at the rim of his nose. The castle, which he acquired on the cheap in the ‘60s, seems to have served as a hippie outpost of some sort. Several oddballs are still on the property, cultivating cannabis.

The documentary reveals intriguingly little about Vig’s past except that he had been both a university librarian and a parish priest, apparently a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Lutheran land. The old man’s interest in Eastern Orthodoxy is unexplained but may have stemmed from mild disillusionment with the faith of his youth and curiosity about the mystical dimension of Christianity. When asked by director Pernille Rose Gronkjaer why he was turning his crumbling castle into a convent, the enigmatic Vig claimed only “an ambition to create something enduring.”

Sister Amvrosija, the young Russian nun who takes possession of the castle, is no shrinking violet but a thorny rose when pressed. With the mild persistence of a velvet jackhammer, Amvrosija pushes Vig to repair the leaky roof, patch the sagging walls, fix the dubious furnace and answer all legal questions regarding the title to the estate. Vig wears his annoyance with a slight shrug while being drawn into the ethereal, beautiful melancholy of the Eastern Orthodox rite by the women’s voices, softly shooting heavenward like thin jets of incense before an icon.

Moments of gorgeous cinematography and compelling composition arise with random deliberation, as if the director plucked occasional radiant moments from the many hours of footage she shot and inserted them like gems against a plain, simple setting. Moving at the unhurried pace of its elderly yet wiry protagonist, TheMonastery is gradually mesmerizing, a subtle visual poem mingling unforced whimsy, gentle humor and moments of mystic silence.

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