An age old question lingers inside our dark heads and hearts… Why do we fall into bad habits? Is it nature for us to be born with them and evolve into them? Is it the world we live in or those around us that influence us? Nature or nurture, we cannot escape bad habits as well fall deeper into the darkness. For some it is comfort. For some it is structure to our daily routines or to perhaps cope in our daily lives. For each, it is different habits that define our lives and affect those around us. For classic writer Hans Christian Andersen as well as filmmaker Michael Panduro it is the source of scribe and visual storytelling with this honest and unsettling character study in the well received and acclaimed Netherlands short film THE SUNKEN CONVENT.
Without a word or soundtrack, the film follows a rather unlikable character offering a snapshot of this man’s daily routine. As voyeurs, we watch a reflection of ourselves in each step of the routine. The world is off balanced yet familiar and somewhat disturbing as with any great horror literature and film. It remind us that we don’t truly know the ones around us. Based off the literary puzzle offered by the written articulation of Andersen and through the production of Panduro, THE SUNKEN CONVENT is a study of the behaviors, sins and vice that many fall into where the routine becomes darker and more disturbing then we realize. The short film pulls the curtain back and creates a truth on many levels. This is visually created with incredible lighting design that at best stays dim or overcast. It never gives any true form of positive vibe to the man’s life and there are very few bright spots to show hope and even those are quickly cut away. The short features a lot of symbolism that while it may offer clues to how or why this man has fallen into these bad habits, they never truly give you all the pieces which leaves the viewer open to the perception of his life and perhaps even their own. Visual symbolism like the fire, frog, the dark woods, gasoline, melting metal, a holy cross and photos only add more layers to the mystery surrounding him and what his daily life is like in this cautionary tale.
Technically, THE SUNKEN CONVENT offers a palate of arthouse style portraying macabre storytelling. Not only the smart lighting but the sound production as well creates a palpable experience. Everything from the moaning next store to the groans during his home surgery to the forest soundscape gets under your skin. You feel dirty, convinced and lost. This blended with the character portrayal of this man whose bad habits continue to evolve as they day goes through, makes you uncomfortable, at times upset, but overall intrigued to what he could do next that could be worse. Believe me, it does get worse, as Panduro pushes the line into unsettling body horror.
Panduro overall shows his talent as filmmaker knowing that short film has its structure and limits. This shows not just in the lighting and sound but also in the scope of the shots in THE SUNKEN CONVENT as we see the direction of movements and the feelings cultivated for each bad habit trapped on film. He is also a very focused editor who knows how to make you feel unsure of anything around you in the pace and placement. With such tools as the eye that looks from beyond the dark room, the red string or the long hallway in which color and light create a feeling of dread, you can’t help but watch and it shows as this short has been selected to over thirty film festivals around the world.
As I watch, I wonder why this deserves so much recognition. As a society, do we want to watch others in the darkness, knowing what bad habits they possess? Do we project ourselves on this unlikable character and his growing heinous acts? Is horror and bad habits closer to us then the right and bright? Whatever it may be, as you watch THE SUNKEN CONVENT, it gives you fuel for thought and conversation. While it is not my favorite short film by any stretch, I do commend Panduro for his overall work on it. The feel and the ability to stimulate something inside of me as a viewer, critic and human, especially in this era of technology, deserves respect. As you watch, think about your bad habits and what you do when you think no one is watching. Is it pleasure or penance that drives the man and his bad habits in THE SUNKEN CONVENT?