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Review: Gardening With Soul


Rated: PG

Jess Feast, 96 minutes, 2013, New Zealand.

One equation could sum up the feeling of this film: energy + love = peace. This recipe to fulfilment comes to light through a woman who has dedicated her life to “helping others stand on their own two feet.”

Winner of Best Documentary at the 2013 NZ Film Awards, Gardening with Soul follows Sister Loyola Galvin, head gardener at the Home of Compassion in Island Bay (just south of Wellington), over her 90th year. The change of seasons frames the narrative, which gently draws out details of Sister Loyola’s life and work. Her story is indeed an interesting one: she speaks of her Irish ancestors and their loyalty to the Catholic faith, her lost wartime love, her struggle to become a nurse despite her osteomyelitis, her decision to join the church, and her commitment to and compassion for the handicapped children who came under the nuns’ care. We even go into the scandal surrounding cases of paedophilia in the Catholic Church (or “aberrations”, as Sister Loyola calls them). As we follow Sister Loyola from garden to church to library to dining room, we discover she is a smart and very strong lady. ““It can’t just be the traditions and the rituals: there’s got to be the basic realisation that what it’s all about is love,” she says. “Unless you’re questioning, you’re not moving forward really.”

The documentary’s approach is very subtle, with minimal feeling of manipulation, but some scenes make beautiful and clever juxtapositions. Feast plays with light, close ups and atmospheric music to create a calm celebration of life, which is beautiful and happy and sad all at once. We see a close up of Sister Loyola planting seeds as she talks about caring for children, a poignant scene of her praying with rosary beads in her hands, and a demonstration of her faith and hardworking spirit as she lights candles in a shrine then pulls up the rug to sweep it clean. The loneliness of such a life is emphasised through cinematography and framing, as Sister Loyola speaks of her social life coming to an end when she joined the sisterhood: we see different close ups of the peaceful dining room – grandfather clock, ornaments, curtain blowing in the breeze – then a shot of Sister Loyola from down the table, alone. Sister Loyola does not regret, however, and her passion shines through. Her spirituality is treated with great respect, and no matter what our individual faith may be we cannot help but fall in love with the woman who expresses her love for life and God through gardening.

This is, however, a very slow-moving film. Feast relies entirely on the time she has spent following and speaking to Sister Loyola, and for some this may not be strong enough material for a feature-length film. But for those interested in gardening, or spirituality, or tranquillity, or individual philosophies, then this is a moving and indeed soothing study of an inspiring woman. While this is an excellent film for a date with your grandma, young audiences should not dismiss it: all views of life help us shape our own, and anyone should benefit from being exposed to such a confident and energetically serene woman.

Written by: Alice Walker, June 2014