National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

DVD Picks & Passes

BY Steven D. Greydanus

April 6-12, 2008 Issue | Posted 4/1/08 at 2:19 PM


The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (2006) - Pick

BBC Natural History Collection (2008) – Pick

If you see only one slow-moving, foreign documentary about a monastery screened last year for U.S. audiences — one featuring an elderly, hard-working man with an imposing white beard and an occasionally alarming disregard for his own safety — unquestionably make it Into Great Silence.

After that, you may want to consider The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, recently released on DVD. Quirky and charming, it’s as utterly different from Into Great Silence as each is from practically every other movie ever made.

Shot over six years, The Monastery tells the story of the efforts of curmudgeonly Danish octogenarian bachelor J. Lauersen Vig to donate a dilapidated Danish castle to the Russian Orthodox Church as a monastery for nuns. I’m not making this up: I couldn’t. His face fringed by unkempt white hair, spectacles dangling at the end of his nose, Vig’s Scrooge-like appearance is neither wholly misleading nor entirely apropos.

Never kissed as a child by his mother, never in love, Vig is a crusty lifelong bachelor who sees the hoped-for monastery as his opportunity to “create something enduring,” as he puts it.

Sister Amvrosija, the attractive, strong-willed Russian Orthodox nun who comes to inspect the castle, makes the greatest possible contrast to Vig. Both agree that the castle needs extensive repairs, but tensions rise as the extent of needed renovations emerges. Their uneasy relationship has been compared to Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, and both remain strangely committed to the project despite mounting obstacles.

In the end, the affection one feels for the cantankerous old coot attests the hope of redemption for even the crankiest of us.

If last year’s 10-disc “Planet Earth”/“Blue Planet” box set wasn’t enough nature documentary goodness for you, help has arrived: The BBC Natural History Collection, new this week on DVD, combines no fewer than four classic BBC/PBS series, all narrated by David Attenborough. Besides the groundbreaking “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet,” the Natural History Collection also includes the similarly authoritative “The Life of Mammals” and “The Life of Birds.”

The 17-disc set doesn’t come cheap — offers it for $150, and that’s $50 off the list price — but with more than 33 hours of engrossing nature travelogue you’ll be set for weeks of viewing pleasure exploring the wonders of creation.

One caution: Although Attenborough generally resists politicizing his documentary work, the final episode of “The Life of Mammals” (“Food for Thought”) argues that human overpopulation is a problem and proposes population control for the good of the environment.

Content advisory

The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun: Brief dialogue about sex and reproduction. Teens and up. BBC Natural History Collection: Some graphic scenes of predation; brief discussion of population control. Generally fine family viewing.