The film’s title announces two central characters: Mr Vig, an old, quirky Dane who dreams of having his derelict castle turned into a Russian Orthodox monastery, and Sister Ambrosija, the tough but all-smiles representative of the Moscow Patriarchate who is called in to take over the estate from Vig. In a world defined by project management, Mr Vig seems unprepared to fully commit himself to what gradually emerges as his once-in-a-lifetime project. He turns out to be a reluctant servant to God. While Sister Ambrosija insists on the definitive nature of their arrangement, he clings to temporary or reversible decisions. The Monastery captures the often hilarious negotiations carried by the two and the practicalities of setting up the monastery. It unfolds as a minimalist, slow burnt piece which builds up a subtle sense of development out of relevant details while leaving room for a sense of the beyond lurking behind the most mundane scenes.
Edgar Morin once wrote that rather than being a Holy Grail to be won, truth is a shuttle moving ceaselessly between the observer and the observed. Although unmentioned in the title, filmmaker Pernille Grønkjær is the third character whose presence is interlaced with the film’s texture. The Monastery starts with a short verbal exchange between subject and filmmaker, setting up the film’s conversational tone. Except for a single sequence in which she steps in to help Vig with a difficult household chore, Grønkjær remains largely an acousmatic being (to paraphrase Michel Chion), i.e. often heard but not seen.
The Monastery succeeds in being both particular and general in its relationship with lived experience: the film’s potential for allegory takes off when Vig points out the salient commonalities between his own life project and the creative project that keeps Grønkjær filming: both he and the filmmaker are equally preoccupied with inscribing meaning and durability into their projects. So, while touching on dreams, fears, love, and death and what’s left after it, The Monastery also touches on documentary work itself as a form of disciplined passion requiring a finely tuned management of the unpredictable.
Vig dies suddenly at the end of the film, elevating his life project to a larger existential context. He was a man with a quest for meaning and a dream of leaving something behind. His death evokes an earlier moment when he humorously pleaded for the need to adopt the unexpected as a rule in life. Life is indeed uncontrollable to a large extent. Good documentary filmmaking attends to that.