Movie review: Gardening with Soul

By Peter Calder

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Sister Loyola Galvin is a cracker of a lead character.
Sister Loyola Galvin is a cracker of a lead character.

Nowhere near enough people saw Jess Feast's hour-long 2008 documentary Cowboys and Communists, which anatomised the problematic relationship between a heavy-metal bar and its unreconstructed communist neighbour in the former East Berlin.

This less left-field offering is certain to find a wider audience: it's a portrait of super-gardener Sister Loyola Galvin of the Home of Compassion in Island Bay, Wellington. A 90-year-old who could easily pass for 75, she gets about the expansive grounds of the order's headquarters, tending plots, raising seedlings, making compost. All the best documentaries have a strong lead character and Sister Loyola is a cracker. A precise and unfussy worker, she sprinkles the footage of her husbandry with her plain-spoken observations about life: kids are like seedlings, she says; if they don't get a good start they will struggle to thrive. She also talks about the importance of separating wants and needs and, never immodestly, about her life of service and the meaning of love.

Dividing the film into chapters corresponding to the four seasons - it opens, strikingly, with snow flurries - Feast (thanks to photographers Gareth Moon, Ari Wegner and Hamish Waterhouse) has created a beautiful portrait of the contemplative life and drawn out her subject's quirky and self-effacing charm.

But stretched out to feature length, the film loses focus at times; a sterner hand in the editing room might have paid dividends. It is also hampered by Feast's intrusive presence as a voice posing questions, many of which should have been edited out and some of which, such as the one about whether Sister Loyola had "ever had an epiphany" are clumsy, even embarrassing. Still, it's not enough to mar a very pleasant 90 minutes in the presence of a wise and inspiring woman.

Stars: 3.5/5
Director: Jess Feast
Running time: 96 mins
Rating: G
Verdict: Charming portrait of a 90-year-old gardening nun

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