Tuesday, November 18, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review - Flowers From the Mount of Olives

When we first see Mother Ksenya she is walking towards the camera from a distance twisting her wrist ball striking alternately on a block of wood as she approaches. She has achieved every step she can in the Monastery except one the Great Schema a vow of silence but the Mother Abbess does not think she is ready. Ksenya will take it if it comes but in the meantime she will carry out her duties at the Convent. She would not mind taking a vow of silence as she does not want to speak to many people anyways and does not know many of the newer nuns.  Your first impression is that you are viewing a kind old woman who has been quietly devoted to the church for decades. That is until she begins to tell her story.

As the decision on the final step approaches director Heilika Pikkov is permitted to have unique access to the convent and speak to  Ksenya about her life and capture daily life at the Convent.  They start from the beginning Ksenya's birth in Estonia in 1928, pictures present on screen showing her soon after birth and her patents as young adults.  She did not have many friends as a child and her memory of her parent's marriage was them fighting all the time. Her father had a moment of indiscretion that inspired her mother to turn her against her father. The attempt did not work even when her mother left for another man taking her with her. She always excelled at school and was at the top of her class with early plans to be a pilot or an aeronautical engineer.

The narrative film flips back and forth from Ksenya telling her life story to the every day activities in the monastery. Pikkov's lens captures a postrig sacrament as a novice becomes a nun receiving her habit for the first time, the nuns fussing over the precise positions for golden standing candlesticks, and a group of nuns in the kitchen kneading bread to make loafs and buns. Another sequence focuses on a num preparing to sound the bell for morning prayers. She does not just swing the clapper against the inside of the bell instead she works it back and forth closer and closer before it begins to strike.Yet another documents the olive harvesting process.

Ksenya continues her tale seated on the ground with a shoebox filled with old photos. She begins to sort though photos of former boyfriends and pauses longer when she gets to each of her  three prior husbands. She tells of her time while still in school she became a translator for the Germans during the Second World War.  She was on hand when the raided farms, carried a gun and was seen by some as a traitor to her country. But it was through this position that she was able to escape first to Latvia and then to freedom after the war.

The daily life at the monastery is filled with regular chores in particular taking care of plants.  The Convent has a reputation in the area and people bring all of their sick plants to them for rehabilitation.  Ksenya calls it their magic soil and once planted the plant is healthy again in a couple of days. During one scene She maliciously presses blossoms into a book with painstakingly slow accuracy. The nuns are often twisting, turning and manoeuvring loss stalks into different shapes and forms.

We do get some details on her former husbands.  The first marriage was to a German at 18, the next to Enn who helped her recovery from an addiction and she followed to Australia. The third to a fellow academic when she worked as an Oncologist in Australia their union lasting 23 years.

Until approved for her last step Mother Ksenya now at 83 years old will continue her duties of service. She has 400 people that she prays for regularly and her duties include giving both religious and psychological advise. With the many places she has lived and spend significant time she is easily able to communicate in multiple languages. In Australia as she was approaching 50 she felt a calling to the church beginning to spend more time in the spiritual world and less in the secular one until her new Spiritual Father told her it was time to take her vows. When her Spiritual Father moved to the Russian Orthodox Convent outside of Jerusalem she followed. Her next step will be the final one of monastic life . If she does not get permissions she will continue along with her formal duties, gardening, pressing flowers and taking care of her family of turtles Markus, Lisa and Versa. If she does this film will serve as a compelling account as any of the last telling of the story of their life.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Flowers From the Mount of Olives | Heilika Pikkov | Estonia | 2013 | 69 Minutes.

Tags; Vows, Nazi Occupation, Turtles, Divorce, Travel,

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