Film Review: Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland

Enthralling and uplifting documentary about a man of the world turned monk, but one who effects real, inspiring change.

Every life is a journey, but few have spanned so many intensely contrasting worlds as that of Nicholas Vreeland. The son of an American diplomat and the grandson of fashion's ultimate doyenne, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, he was raised in an international life of privilege and elegance. He was a dandified playboy, known for dating the most glamorous women and wearing the nattiest custom-tailored suits. Loving photography from an early age, it took no more than a mere phone call from grandma to install him as assistant to the great lenser Irving Penn, and then Richard Avedon, before establishing his own reputation.

Somehow all the high-powered glamour of his enviable existence left him with questions and, when he discovered Tibetan Buddhism, he found his new calling. He moved to Tibet and installed himself in a monastery to fulfill what he perceived to be his true destiny, that of a monk, studying with his spiritual master, the eminent Khyongla Rinpoche. Out went the bespoke suits and chic haircuts, to be replaced by a monk's red robes and shaved head. As the monastery's population grew, he schemed to build a larger edifice to better house the initiates.

The financial crash of recent years stymied his plans as promised donations from wealthy benefactors disappeared. So Vreeland took the photographs he had continued to shoot—all the while questioning his inability to detach himself from his camera, a materialistic affectation that Buddhism shuns—and enlisted his impressive Rolodex of important secular friends to help him exhibit and sell them. He raised a half-million dollars and, with that money, was able to realize his dream of a bigger, improved and quite beautiful monastery. This documentary account of his beyond-peripatetic life triumphantly climaxes with a visit to the monastery by the Dalai Lama himself.

Guido Santi and Tina Mascara have indeed found a dream subject in Vreeland who, mercifully, is never overbearingly preachy or virtuous. Incredibly self-possessed, evidently from childhood, he goes about his good works, which include not only building the monastery, but buying food from Citarella for a homeless man on a New York street, and act rendered with a matter-of-fact naturalism that is as appealing as it is mysterious.

At one point, an old chum from his playboy days recalls Vreeland's getting rid of his custom Lobb shoes by placing them on the street and tries to mock him by drawing attention to his highly polished sandals. “They last longer if you polish them,” Vreeland ripostes, which says volumes about his calm, inner-directed and incredibly photogenic certitude—even as he remains riddled with doubt about his photographic pursuit. His celibacy, which is another undoubted challenge, given his professed love of women, is also touched upon, if glancingly.

As fascinating as Vreeland is his mentor Rinpoche, who had the highest honor of presiding over the Dalai Lama's original investiture and who now lives in New Jersey and calls himself a “free man.” The ever-affable Dalai shows deep affection for Rinpoche, while teasing Vreeland and his brother Alexander about their prominent noses. (Richard Gere, ubiquitous in these circumstances, is also present.) But it may be Nicholas’ proud father, Frederick, who has the ultimate last word when he says that what makes him happier than anything else is the fact that people no longer ask him if he's Diana Vreeland's son, but do wonder if he's Nicky's father.

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