The Monastery

2006, Movie, NR, 84 mins


An elderly Danish eccentric who dreams of converting his crumbling chateau into a Russian Orthodox monastery butts heads with a strong-willed Russian nun. Few summaries could less promising, but this wonderful documentary from Denmark is actually a surprisingly complex and deeply poignant portrait of a stubborn and irascible loner who meets his match in the last person he ever expected.

We first meet Mr. Jorgen Lorsen Vig -- a life-long bachelor who claims never to have fallen in love (he dismisses the whole business as if it were a human weakness best avoided) -- as he's puttering around Hesberj, Mr. Vig's crumbling, poorly heated manse deep in the Danish countryside. Dressed in several layers of clothes and sporting clunky boots, a thick fur hat he rarely removes and a pair of tape-mended eyeglasses, Mr. Vig is preparing for the arrival of a contingent of nuns from the Moscow Patriarchate, the command center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Once a parish priest in Glostrup and a habitue of Benedictine retreats, Mr. Vig intends on fulfilling a 40-year-old dream to turn this beautiful but seriously neglected old building into a monastery where a Russian Orthodox priest, several nuns and pilgrims can live and worship in the kind of solitude Mr. Vig clearly values; he's lived alone for decades. But Mr. Vig's vision of Hesberj's future is quite different from its present reality. Nature has reclaimed the grounds for herself and the house itself is well on its way to becoming a ruin. Sister Amvrosija, however, isn't so easily put off. Upon arrival, she asks that the Buddhist Tanga paintings and the opium bed be removed, but sees promise in the old place, even though the infrastructure is in serious need of repair. When she and her fellow sisters return that summer to live, Sister Amvrosija takes charge. If the house is to be rendered inhabitable, she insists, the heating system must be overhauled and the boiler replaced along with the entire roof: Years of leaks have softened Hesberj's brick walls, which are now buckling dangerously outward. And if the Moscow Patriarchate is to foot the bill for the restoration, they must have a greater say than the stubborn Mr. Vig is prepared to allow. Under the sharp, sensible eye of Sister Amvrosija, Mr. Vig's impossible dream may indeed become a reality, but it'll require relinquishing control of his home and, to a large extent, himself -- something he's fearfully guarded his entire life.

Danish documentary filmmaker Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's first great accomplishment is to see a good story where many lesser filmmakers might not. Her second lies her ability to draw that story out of a difficult subject, a stubborn and often infuriating old man who's used to doing things his own way. But he's also oddly sympathetic, and his willingness to reveal personal truths about his life for Gronkjaer's camera describes a profound loneliness that has largely defined his life. Filming Mr. Vig over several years, Gronkjaer no doubt wound up with countless hours of footage, and yet she's able to craft a fascinating picture out of relatively few, carefully chosen details. This is her third great achievement. Against all odds, you'll leave this remarkable film caring quite a bit for the old coot -- surely a sign of a very good documentary. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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