As a documentary, “Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland” is as unassuming as its subject. It seems to demand nothing as it goes about sketching out Vreeland’s unusual religious and creative quest.
Directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, the film is, indeed, about a Tibetan monk with a camera. The larger question it seeks to answer is why the man — grandson of legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, son of an American diplomat, child of privilege — gave up worldly possessions to become a monk and how the camera figures into it.
The documentary begins in more recent times, as Vreeland — head-shaved, wearing the dark red robes and sandals that identify him as a member of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition — makes the daily rounds at the monastery that he heads. There’s a quick cut back to a few months earlier in the U.S. when, in 2012, the Dalai Lama is giving Vreeland his new assignment. Richard Gere, the actor well known for his Buddhism studies, is there, as is Vreeland’s brother Alexander.
The filmmakers next set about tracing Vreeland’s path to enlightenment. Old family photos show him as a child, a teen, then a stylish, well-turned-out young man, very often with a camera slung round his neck in those later shots.
The long connection with photography, apprenticeships with photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, was aided by his fashion-forward grandmother. He not only had an entrée into the photography business, he had talent.
But, as interviews with Vreeland, his family and friends, make clear, he was a restless soul in search of more.
Piece by piece the picture of the man and his life comes together. Then the pictures, his pictures, begin to take center stage. He turned to photography again as a way to help cover the economic shortfall of renovating and expanding housing for the growing community of monks at the monastery in India where he spent years.
Throughout the film there is no question of Vreeland’s commitment to Buddhism. This is not the story of a dilettante dabbling. His 30-year dedication includes ongoing study with New York-based Tibetan Buddhist master Khylongla Rinpoche, now in his 90s, whose needs Vreeland still attends to.
Yet ultimately the documentary falls short of explaining why Vreeland not only made his choice but maintained it. There are broad references to that desire to be a better human being, to contribute, the heart-wrenching effect of his mother’s death to cancer. But what sparked the sacrifice remains a mystery.
More unsettling is the tonal shift the film takes as the topic turns to the funds Vreeland’s photography now generates. As the screen fills with the extraordinary images he’s taken, you stop wondering about Vreeland’s epiphany and start worrying you’ll be asked for a donation on your way out.
‘Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland’
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles