Flowers from the Mount of Olives (Olimae Oied): Locarno Review

Flowers From the Mount of Olives - H 2013

Flowers From the Mount of Olives - H 2013

Miniature religious portrait in delicate strokes, with occasional lily-gilding.

Octogenarian nun Sister Ksenya is profiled in an Estonian documentary by Heilika Pikkov, which goes behind the walls of a Jerusalem convent.

Small-o orthodox in style, Estonia's Flowers from the Mount of Olives (Olimae Oied) presents a capital-O Orthodox nun in Jerusalem with a distinctly unorthodox background. Ironic paradoxes quietly abound in writer-director-editor Heilika Pikkov's doc, one of the less edgy but more rewarding international premieres at Locarno this year.

Winner of an independent jury's social-ethics award at the festival, this deft little crowdpleaser - benign flipside of Cristian Mungiu's Orthodox-convent shocker Beyond the Hills - should find plenty of favor among programmers of non-fiction film-festivals. Its small-screen chances would be boosted by the availability of a trimmed version suitable for hour-long slots, though if anything the 69-minute cut shown in Estonia and Locarno leaves several avenues tantalizingly unexplored.

All recent documentaries filmed in cloisters have of course fallen under the lugubrious shadow of Philipp Groning's monastery epic Into Great Silence (2005), the 169-minute exercise in austerity which proved a surprise international arthouse hit. Pikkov's film, almost exactly 100 minutes shorter, asserts its own character by placing the emphasis on a single, engrossing individual with an eyebrow-raising backstory.

82 at the start of filming in 2010, Sister Ksenya - like the late Aaliyah, she regards age as "only a number" - delivers an autobiographical testament in her native Estonian tongue. Pikkov keeps a low profile, unseen and unheard, her reticence frustrating when Ksenya touches, just a little defensively, on her teenage activities working as a translator for 1940s Estonia's Nazi occupiers ("those complicated times...")

The director's tactful approach pays off, however, as she's obviously won the confidence and trust of her increasingly garrulous subect. Ksenya opens up about her startlingly colorful private life - her spell of morphine addiction, her adopted Tongan "son," and her three husbands, two of whom were destined for early graves. "My lord, there were so many!" she exclaims, raking through photographs of her former boyfriends from a previous life.

Very much engaged with worldly concerns, Ksenya spent 23 years in Australia as an oncologist ("and I didn't discover anything, of course") before a retirement devoted to spiritual matters. Ksenya may be at peace, but she's by no means at rest - she's shown booking and then undertaking one of her regular trips back to Estonia on behalf of the church. This is a confusing development, as Ksenya's vows ("I've reached the hermit stage") supposedly confine her to the convent as a prelude to the 'Higher Schema,' or permanent silence.

Any departure from the convent's tranquil precincts, which the industrious sisters - gardening and flower-pressing are popular pursuits - share with several aged but scenestealingly mobile tortoises, does break the film's 'spell' a little. Pikkov, with her fellow DoP Astrida Konstante, delivers some entracing, privileged glimpses of this Orthodox enclave atop the Mount of Olives, only a few hundred yards from the hubbub of the city's traffic-choked streets (viewers seeking details of the establishment's sometimes stormy history won't find them in Pikkov's screenplay, which is always more show than tell.)

The lofty perch's elevated perspectives also offer some dramatic tableaux - a nun shown ringing a bell on a windy promontory in the opening montage inevitably echoes Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger's 1947 classic of suppressed passion in holy orders. Tricky interfaces between the worldly and the divine are also touched upon, albeit in much less heated and penetrating fashion, by Pikkov here, her detached observational style adhering obediently to current documentary trends. Old photographs are 'enhanced' with mild animation, while Estonian prog-rock maestro Sven Grunberg's score is deployed with the counterproductive excess so annoyingly beloved of non-fiction directors nowadays.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Critics' Week), August 15 2013
Production company: Silmviburlane
Director / Screenwriter / Editor: Heilika Pikkov
Producer: Ulo Pikkov
Directors of photography: Astrida Konstante, Heilika Pikkov
Music: Sven Grunberg
Sales: Silmviburlane, Tallinn
No MPAA rating, 69 minutes