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Monk with a Camera: Where art and spirituality collide

One-time dandy Nicholas Vreeland left that life behind to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk and trained by Irving Penn to become a photographer.

3 out of 4 stars

Directed by
Guido Santi and Tina Mascara
Language
English

Although Diana Vreeland, the endlessly quotable fashion legend, famously called pink "the navy blue of India," she said nothing – at least on the record – about another subcontinental shade: saffron.

That hue would prove most relevant, however, to the destiny of one of her grandsons, Nicky, a one-time dandy and budding photographer who swapped his Italian shoes and Leicas for a shaved head and saffron robes when he was ordained, against all odds and expectations, a Buddhist monk in the eighties.

In 2012, the Geneva-born, Groton-educated scion (described by his diplomat father as a "naughty boy" when he was a teen) also became the first Westerner to lead one of Tibetan Buddhism's most important monasteries, Rato Dratsang. It is located in – full circle – the Indian city of Mundgod.

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The improbable life and extraordinary vocation of Nicholas Vreeland are the subject of a riveting new documentary, Monk with a Camera, that isn't just the biography of a remarkable man, but a revealing meditation on the relationship between spirituality and art. Featuring appearances by both the Dalai Lama and the fashion director of Vogue, it is also likely the first film to hold equal appeal among fashion buffs and Buddhists alike. Celebritydom's most famous follower of Gelugpa, Richard Gere, is thrown in for good measure.

Directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, married Italians who made 2007's Chris & Don, a documentary about writer Christopher Isherwood and his much younger partner, Don Bachardy, Monk with a Camera kicks off by showing the lead-up to Vreeland's investiture three years ago as abbot of Rato, a centuries-old monastery that was relocated to southern India after the Chinese occupied Tibet. It quickly segues, though, to his childhood and youth, effectively showing what he left behind when he began his spiritual journey.

As Wendy Goodman, New York magazine's design editor and a friend of Vreeland's, says in the film, "Nicky came from a very special and rarefied world," one that the directors evoke by having him sift through old photos. "This was a horse that the king of Morocco had given to Jackie Kennedy," Vreeland says of one image he dwells on (his father, Frederick [Frecky], served from Washington to Rome and was the U.S. ambassador in Rabat). "This must have been an Avedon sitting," he says of another set of pics.

If his father's career took Vreeland around the world at a young age and instilled his worldliness, it was through his uncompromising grandmother that he learned to discern beauty, to cultivate perfection and to acquire a discipline he would later apply in ways she couldn't have imagined (think vow of celibacy). "I would not have gone to her apartment if my shoes weren't shined," the monk tells the camera, adding that Diana's high standards weren't imposed "for show. It was for the sake of bettering oneself [and] for the sake of bettering the world."

More concretely, Diana Vreeland also launched her grandson's career when he declared an interest in photography, calling up Richard Avedon to secure an apprenticeship. Fortunately, the teenaged Nicky had talent. On a later trip to India to photograph "the last of the maharajahs," he makes a side trip to Dharamsala, igniting a passion for Tibetan Buddhism that he says in the film was first sparked by Hergé's Tintin in Tibet. (In one of the doc's few off notes, some key occasions are illustrated through weird, Tintin-esque cartoons.)

From then on, Buddhism and photography serve as defining aspects of Vreeland's life, even as he actively resists the latter because he thinks the former demands it. The folly of this notion is refuted cosmically when the monastery faces financial peril and Vreeland's photography provides a lifeline. If the directors had set out to document the unusual rise of an American in a religious hierarchy not his by birth, they have also shown, subtly and movingly, how art in the service of a good cause can be just as potent as prayer.

Toward the end of Monk with a Camera, octogenarian Frecky Vreeland, a charming presence throughout, reveals that people used to ask him if he was Diana Vreeland's son, but now want to know if he's Nicky Vreeland's father. To be sure, Nicky is a less flamboyant relation, but no less worthy of inquiry. Whatever colour he wears.

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Danny Sinopoli is the Style editor for The Globe and Mail.

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