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A man born into upper-crust society and living a life as a globe-trotting playboy renounces his worldly aspirations to become a Buddhist monk. That’s the high-concept theme of Guido Santi and Tina Mascara‘s (Chris & Don: A Love Story) documentary Monk with a Camera. Subtitled The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland, the film is an engaging portrait of a singular, camera-ready personality whose spiritual transformation may well others who aspire to hanging out with the likes of the Dalai Lama.
In a story that seems ready-made for fictional treatment, Vreeland was the grandson of famed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and the son of a prominent diplomat. Schooled at Groton, he enjoyed a life of high privilege; when he developed an interest in photography as a teenager, all it took was a single phone call from his grandmother to secure him a place as assistant to Irving Penn. He later went on to work with Richard Avedon.
“He was a very committed dandy,” one friend comments in the film, while another labels him “an exotic.” Usually clad in expensive, custom-made suits, Vreeland made an early name for himself as a photographer and enjoyed a succession of glamorous girlfriends.
But he increasingly found himself unfulfilled by his high-class lifestyle, and the theft of all of his cameras in the late ’70s provided enough insurance money for him to immerse himself in Tibetan Buddhism. Shaving his head and moving to India, he spent many years living in a monastery while studying to become a monk.
But he never fully abandoned his passion for photography, which would come in handy when his monastery found itself in desperate need of funds after the 2008 economic crisis. He once again picked up his camera, which he describes at one point as “his girlfriend,” and the resulting sales of his photographs paid for its rebuilding. Not long after, he was appointed abbot of the monastery by the Dalai Lama, making him the only Westerner in Tibetan Buddhist history to achieve such a position.
The film’s admiring portrait never quite delves deeply enough into its subject, who mainly comes across as a quirky personality bridging two very different worlds. Signaling the disparity is the presence of two of his closest friends: his Buddhist teacher Khylonga Rinpoche and, seemingly ubiquitous in films dealing with Tibetan Buddhism, actor Richard Gere.
When one of his old friends sardonically observes that he polishes his sandals, Vreeland nonchalantly replies, “They last longer.” He wonders if photography is “virtuous or non-virtuous,” and comments that the most challenging aspect of being a celibate monk is that “I’m very fond of women.”
Endlessly following Vreeland around as he pursues his various activities, the film doesn’t quite justify its feature-length running time, and its cheap-looking animated interludes seem jarringly out of place. But despite its superficial aspects, Monk with a Camera should prove catnip to Westerners who may be going through spiritual crises of their own.
Production: Asphalt Stars Productions
Directors/editors: Guido Santi, Tina Mascara
Producers: Vishwanath Alluri, Guido Santari, Tina Mascara
Executive producers: Vishwanath Alluri, Andrew Herwitz
Directors of photography: Ugo Lo Pinto, Ralph Q. Smith
Composer: Pivio DeScalzi
No rating, 90 min.
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