In Wellington, New Zealand, a camera follows 90-year-old green thumb, Sister Loyola Galvin as she shares her love of gardening.


God's green earth in slow motion.

If there was ever a doubt that modern nuns get their hands dirty in the real world, then Sister Loyola Galvin is living proof. A little old nun – she celebrates her 90th birthday in the course of this documentary – Sister Loyola is the head gardener at the Home of Compassion in Island Bay just south of Wellington, New Zealand. Wispy-haired, hunched and sometimes on crutches, Loyola is indefatigable. She’s constantly digging, planting, turning compost and driving her car to the spectacular pearl-coloured beach where she collects seaweed for the vegetable beds. All the while she attempts to answer the filmmaker’s questions about her long life of service, first as a nurse in World War II, then as a childcare worker raising abandoned and disabled children, and now as the nurturer of the ever-changing garden.

Gardening with Soul is filmed over the course of a year and divided into seasons – beginning with an icy winter showing frost on the silverbeet, and concluding with a golden Autumn ripe for contemplation of death and the afterlife. The film, which won the Best Documentary prize at the 2013 New Zealand Film Awards, is a portrait of a humble but determined woman. Sister Loyola is not a rebel, or a charmer, or even a great wit. She does deliver some nice slices of wisdom: “You have to be careful of things that don't get a good start, especially gardens and children,” and “If everybody had a shed, there’d be no domestic violence.”

The most intriguing scenes are the ones in which Loyola mentions her first love, the man she was going to marry. He was a soldier who died in the war, and she still obviously grieves 70-odd years later. His death was the event that sent her into the nunnery. She doesn’t have photos of him. “No, not anymore,” she says, reluctant to speak of it. “Something happened and I don’t have them anymore.”

Director Jess Feast (Cowboys and Communists) is obviously fascinated and inspired by her subject. The camera is focused firmly on Loyola as she goes about her busy days (singing in church, bossing around her assistant, reuniting with the damaged children she raised who are now grown up). The garden also features heavily, often shot handheld from behind Loyola’s shoulder to give her point of view. Accompanied by a gentle guitar score composed by David Long, it’s rather beautiful – bees buzzing in purple flowers, grasses shot with the sun behind them – without shying away from the dirty work of removing dead plants so the cycle can continue.

But after a while you long for variety – perhaps a cutaway to somebody else’s point of view, or a fresh face to take the focus off the elderly Loyola in her grey-green parka. It seems churlish to criticise a film about a woman who is so obviously good – but 100 minutes of her is just too much. Perhaps you need to share the Christian faith to really appreciate this simple and leisurely portrait. Cynics, atheists and those hurt by the Church will wriggle with boredom cringe at repeated contemplations of love, self-denial and service. Those who do not believe can certainly admire Loyola as a human being, but may find this documentary a snail’s pace meditation they never signed up for.

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1 hour 40 min
In Cinemas 29 May 2014,