Flowers from the Mount of Olives : towards silence
by Laurence Boyce
- Playing in the Semaine de la Critique section of the 66th Locarno Film Festival, Estonian documentary Flowers from the Mount of Olives is an affecting account of a simple life prefaced by a complex past
Ostensibly set in a Russian Orthodox Convent located on Jerusalem’s Mount Of Olives, Heilika Pikkov’s documentary Flowers from the Mount of Olives follows 82-year-old nun Mother Ksenya (photo). The Estonian native contemplates her life as she prepares for the possibility of ascending to the Great Schema – the final stage of monastic life, which would also means spending the rest of her life adhering to a vow of silence.
The film balances itself between a character study of Ksenya and a tiny glimpse into the way of life in the Convent. The latter is certainly interesting, with the long and languid (yet often exhausting) work conducted by the nuns in the sun dappled convent often beautifully filmed with an eye for quirky detail. But it’s the former that provides the film’s most sublime moments.
Ksenya’s life story – including a troubled childhood, several complex marriages, a previous career as an oncologist and the comfort that she finds in her religion - is never less than one of intrigue, broken hearts and ambition. It’s clear that Ksenya finds it often difficult to discuss (with one telling scene of her examining photos of boyfriends past seeing her turn to annoyance and upset) yet there’s a certain amount of the confessional here as well. With Ksenya maybe never being allowed to speak again in the near future, there’s a sense she is taking the opportunity to tell her story one last time.
The film also allows the audience to confront its own prejudices. When faced with the image of a meek and elderly nun it’s easy to assume a life lived of the unremarkable and the mundane. It’s only when her extraordinary story – which Ksenya often delivers in a sparing and matter-of-fact way – comes to the fore does that it become apparent how appearances can be deceiving.
Sharply edited and shot along with some extremely subtle use of animation as Ksenya reflects on her past, this is a strong and compelling film that should prove popular on the festival circuit (and, obviously, with documentary festivals in particular.) Winning the Premio Zonta Club Locarno (awarded to the film that promotes at best justice and social ethics) after its World Premiere should also help the film’s profile immensely.