Gardening With Soul Movie Review

Featuring: Sister Loyola Galvin
Director: Jess Feast
Writers: Jess Feast
Australian release date: Thursday, 29 May

Reviewer: Karen
Verdict: An enjoyable cinematic meditation

Gardening with Soul is a feature length documentary following a year in the garden with 90-year-old Sister Loyola Galvin. Sister Loyola’s optimism is infectious and it’s fed every day by her love of gardening. Themes of faith, aging and compassion sit alongside the practicalities of community life, issues within the Catholic Church and the importance of good compost in this intimate, funny and moving portrait of a woman approaching the end of her life.

The opening images of Gardening With Soul are of a stormy beach, with bulging rollers crashing onto a black volcanic-rock shore. We’re in The Piano territory, New Zealand, but our protagonist is no mute romantic heroine, but a diminutive ancient nun who works in her retirement in the garden of a mother-convent in Wellington.

Documentary maker Jess Feast follows Sister Loyola through four seasons in the garden, chatting with her about her life, her work and her faith. Just as the seasons won’t be hurried, neither is the pace of the film, but each moment is a pleasure, and our contemplation of the images and words becomes a kind of meditation that entirely suits the subject matter.

Beautiful cinematography and a sensitive score and ambient sound that allow for silence at appropriate times enhance this gentle, insightful portrait of a woman whose life has been full of work and compassion.

Work is a strong theme. Loyola trained as a nurse and expected to marry during WWII, but her fiance died and she made a conscious decision to join the church as a nun, taking her name from St Ignatius Loyola, whose mysticism inspired her. At 90, she feels herself slowing down, but still works in the garden, supervising others and weeding, planting and watering alongside them. She potters around in a large shed which has a comical poster saying something along the lines of “Man who says something is impossible should stay out of the way of the woman who is doing it.”

The community of women Loyola is part of has certainly been doing wonderful things over the years, teaching and nursing, raising orphaned or abandoned children with compassion and capability. A couple of men make an appearance: a gardening offsider, a chef; but I was stupidly shocked when a priest turned up at the convent to conduct a communion mass. Loyola has some candid remarks to make about “Rome” and issues of pedophile priests, but while she specifically fingers power as a problem, there’s no conversation about the possibility of women getting hold of it in the Catholic Church.

Feast asks about her faith, and Loyola speaks openly. Her faith is simple but not naïve; ultimately she evokes a definition of God from the documentary-maker herself, and congratulates her on her cleverness. She herself wisely refrains from describing her religious experience – “it’s beyond words” – but she allows that it is deep and passionate.

You won’t necessarily learn too much about gardening that you didn’t already know. The garden is an example from nature of the cycle of life which in Loyola must be approaching its end. She’s pragmatic about this, and draws hope from the fact that from decay and death, a new cycle emerges. She applies gardening analogies to the beginning of life too, noting that living things flourish from good beginnings: this principle informed her work with young children.

Loyola is a most engaging subject. With her variety of knitted beanies and her good humoured practicality, she will impress most who see this film, whether or not they share her religion. But it’s an odd feature at a cinema; I confidently expect Gardening With Soul to turn up on ABC-TV to delight many with its gorgeous images and simple wisdom.

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One thought on “Gardening With Soul Movie Review”

  1. Sounds engrossing from your excellent review, Karen, which gives a very clear idea of what to expect. If I don’t catch it at the cinema will watch out for it on ABC or SBS – a likely destiny, as you say, and probably sooner rather than later.

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