Gardening with Soul is an unusual movie: a feature-length documentary running to 100 minutes, in which there is basically only one personality (at first I thought the Home of Compassion in Wellington had been deserted), next to no 'action' and a good deal of contemplative time.
Sister Loyola, the near-ninety-year-old who is the focus of this movie, tends the extensive gardens at the HOC, come rain come shine, with or without walking sticks, crutches, and other walking aids, and chats away as though she's chatting to someone else visible on screen. Except there isn't anyone - at least not for the first several minutes. It comes as a surprise when the voice of the director is heard, mid-shot, telling her that she and her crew don't need chairs to sit on, as Sister struggles to pull one out of a corner. We never see the filmmaker, Jess Feast, though we hear her on and off during the movie, when sometimes she's asking a pertinent question, and sometimes she's being caught out by Sister Loyola's candidness.
The film is divided roughly into four quarters representing the four seasons, but these are only loose fittings for a film that's much more about what it is to live contentedly, with God, and in community. And in your garden. Sometimes Sister Loyola stops for long enough to tell us a story about her past - these are often very moving, as in the moment when she talks about her former boyfriend who was a casualty of the Second World War. She says she no longer has any photos of him; when Feast asks why, we get a kind of 'mind your own business' look - it's done in the nicest possible way, but it's a moment that's yet another insight into the good Sister's character. As is her telling of the way her beloved father reacted when she said she was going to be a nun. We barely find out why he was so set against this; more importantly we discover that it took quite some time for him to come to terms with his favourite daughter's action, but that eventually he came round.
Most of the stories in the movie are like this: little more than hints - Sister Loyola doesn't gossip about her past, doesn't feel it's necessary for the world to know why someone behaved as they did, or how she moved from one stage of life to another. Occasionally she tells a humorous anecdote - as in her sneaking into nursing by the back door, almost - but for the most part we're left to guess a good deal more than we learn.
At other times she'll stop and talk about what it is to love people, and the way she and the other sisters loved the children they cared for over the years, and the unmarried mothers who were struggling with society's dismissal of them. One of the children, now well and truly grown-up, comes to visit. She's a big confident woman - so we think at first. But once she sits down to reminisce with Sister Loyola, she's a child again, full of joy at being close to this woman who's obviously given her a great more than she would otherwise have received.
Her gardening assistant, a man in his forties, perhaps, and a man of very few words, takes her every order with equanimity, and there seems to be a loose relationship between the two. Unexpectedly, at the end, as he's going home for the day, he turns and gives her a great big hug, and this appears to be perfectly normal. Her other gardening assistant, a younger woman, is only ever seen at a distance. We never get to know how she fits into the scheme of things, except that she works a couple of days a week to give Sister Loyola a hand with the work. Various other people come and go in the film, seldom named, just part of the general world the Sister inhabits.
And then there are the moments when the Sister is just seen sitting and reflecting. Or reading. Or viewing one section of the enormous garden. Quietness is a key aspect of this movie. So quiet at times, I almost nodded off at one point, and a woman next to my wife actually went to sleep. This isn't to say it's boring, but it does have a restful feel about it.
Towards the end Feast asks her something about the spiritual life; Sister Loyola answers by saying that Feast is always asking her to analyse it, but for some things there are no words. A moment later Feast herself, off camera as always, gives the answer to the question she's just asked. 'There you go,' says Sister Loyola, 'you know the answer. You just have to say it.' Or words to that effect.
There were some laugh-out-loud moments in this movie; Loyola has a wry sense of humour. There is plenty of warmth. The subject is a most intriguing lady, someone who knows things because she's now old. 'There are some things you just don't know unless you've been old,' she says rather enigmatically. This seemingly fragile old lady is still full of beans, though she's given up driving because she was getting a bit forgetful, and didn't want to cause an accident. Forgetfulness is concerning her towards the end. She may think there's a cause for concern; for her audience her mind seems as sharp as a tack.