Pernille Rose Grønkjær: The Monastery

On September 21st the awarded Danish documentary masterpiece – after having toured the world – premieres in Danish cinemas. From the DFI magazine FILM (53, November 2006) we bring this extract of an article, written by blog owner Allan Berg Nielsen:

THE MANIFOLD NATURE OF LOVE

“Mr. Vig, Matushka brought an icon for you…”
“Oh!”
“This is an icon for you. It’s our present for you. To start a monastery here.”
“I like that. I like that one. I like that one very’ much. Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.”
“You can kiss it.”
“Oh, thank you very much…”
Amvrosya, a nun, and Matushka, her superior, have arrived at Jørgen Laursen Vig’s castle and he reverently admires the icon they have brought him as a gift from their monastery in . He makes the sign of the cross, he praises the beauty of the artwork, he is sincerely pleased. But he does not kiss the icon. He does not submit to its holiness. He wants to transform his castle into a Russian-Orthodox monastery with Amvrosya’s help, but he balks at making the final commitment.
Later in the film, when several nuns have moved in, a procession is organized. Reluctantly, he joins in. He sees that the whole castle has been redone and incorporated into the holiness he invited in but whose consequences he had not quite foreseen. They fix up the room he set aside for a chapel prior to their arrival, but now Vig says it has to be a temporary arrangement. No, Amvrosya explains, once the chapel has been consecrated it can no longer be changed.
Vig has come a long way toward holiness in the three renunciations of the monastic vow. For 86 years he has lived in chastity, he clearly leads a humble life of poverty in the ramshackle castle. But he cannot submit to obedience; devotion is his trouble.

Grønkjær’s film is about this holiness.

LANDSCAPE AND CHAPEL

The Danish landscape around the castle is beautiful and the camerawork eloquently describes this beauty. Beautiful, too, is the Russian art that, first in the single icon given to Vig, then in volume, gradually fills the chapel with fragrant, coloursaturated imagery captured by the camera in long, caring shots. The iconostasis, a sacred backdrop for immersion in the readings, is depicted against the seasonal changes of the landscape as Vig continues his free life. Both are depictions of beauty, the Russian art in the chapel against the Danish countryside outside in the gardens and the fields. Nature and culture, the prayer hours and the seasons, winter scenery and the iconostasis, the nun’s kitchen and Vig’s library. The secular and the sacred. Grønkjær’s film details two different kinds of beauty. Like Vig, it cannot choose one over the other, depicting them side by side, closely cut’ together.

LOVE

Sexuality is for making babies, Vig says. For a few weeks, a few times in a lifetime. Yes, he had a love once a very long time ago, but since then that side of life has been covered by other passions, studies, books and travel, a series of projects, culminating in the foundation of the monastery. Love – he doesn’t know much about it. Sure, he has had the feeling, he has loved.

The film is not content to leave it at that, however. The nature of love is multi-faceted and inclusive. Vig does not elude it in the long run. A warm relationship evolves between him and Amvrosya. He falls asleep during prayer. With the book in his lap. The book he has begged so to get, the book he labours at harder than any physical thing in the house is his entrance to the world. Now he has fallen asleep and gently she walks over and turns the page to the current place in the prayer. He wakes up and sees that he is keeping up. It is a gentleness that does not call attention to itself. With caring and respectful resolve, she serves him his meals at a table in the kitchen. He maintains his status and dignity. He is worth loving.

The third actor in the film, the filmmaker with her camera, becomes entangled in a relationship of complex fascinations. The camera gazes at the old man with increasing tenderness and, for his part, he draws the filmmaker into all his deliberations, talking to the camera as if that were the most natural thing in the world. In their long conversations, the small instrument is a prosthesis for memory that, in eagerness and engrossment, is more easily overlooked than a pad on a stenographer’s knee, the black octave of note-taking.

Grønkjær’s film charts the manifold nature of love.

SHOOTING

Grønkjær shot all the footage herself from the first time she met Vig in 2000. For a while, she lived in a trailer at Hesbjerg, tracking the changing light and endlessly shifting colours of the landscape as a backdrop for the old man’s daily life and all his scattered attempts at maintaining his property, which had long since gone to seed. She had a camera on permanent loan from Zentropa Real, while tenaciously, though unsuccessfully, seeking funds for her film. She did not have a lot of footage to show yet. Consultants and editors told her no. Apart from the essential equipment deal, she had no backing. Still, there was a freedom in this phase. She could spontaneously pursue any inclination. Her shooting schedule had no limits. Five years passed this way, as she slowly accumulated footage. Like Vig, she was working on a project most would have abandoned. Vig understood her. He had been working even longer on his own project.

KEY SCENES

The presentation of the icon at the nuns’ first visit is a key scene. Another comes later on. Vig is in front of the greenhouse, hoeing. From behind the camera, the filmmaker asks him:

“Why is it so interesting to have a monastery here?”
Vig answers: “It is an old ambition of mine to leave a legacy. That’s a banal thing, of course. One would like to do something that persists – it is an ambition.”
“I don’t get it,” the filmmaker challenges.
“Huh?”
“I don’t get it,” she repeats.
“You don’t get it?”
“No.”
He looks up from what he is doing.
“You don’t want to make a film that becomes part of history, a documentary?”
“Um, yes,” she admits.
“You want to make something of quality. There you go.” And he continues his gardening. “There you go,” he repeats and crouches to deal with a weed.

Share your love
Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

Articles: 3861