As I sat watching MYSTERION, Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary about a convent in northern Estonia, the flicker of actual film stock as well as the timeless faces and garb of the nuns convinced me that it must have been shot in the 1970s. (1991, actually). Although sometimes I would get sidetracked and have the absurd fleeting thought, “no, 14th century.” Rather like Frederick Wiseman, Pirjo Honkasalo, a female Finnish documentary filmmaker honored at this year’s IDFA festival, lets events unfold before her camera. And it’s enchanting.
Many scenes at the convent let daily life happen without commentary or exposition: planting peas in the summer, shearing sheep in the summer, sawing through and loading up 2 foot slabs of ice in the howling, bitter Estonian winter. The women are all cloaked in the black habits and headgear, (more abayas than wimples)swaddled so tightly about their faces that only hairline to cheekbones to chin are visible. The soundtrack, the women singing hymns in church, knits the scenes together with an otherworldly quality. The film is complex as well as beautiful – there’s a mine nearby pumping pollution and sludge into the river near the farm where the convent grows and raises food for its existence. The Russian Orthodox priests come in, decked in gold-embroidered finery and insane pumpkin-shaped hats. It is a quiet, slow and magical piece of filmmaking.
But it is the women themselves who are the focus. Mother Georgia, the Hegumenia of the order, escaped the Siege of Leningrad at the age of 9, although she lost her parents and her 2 sisters along the way. Sister Naellia, a seamstress from the Ukraine, gives up her free will to God and becomes Mother Victoria. But it left me wondering about that sacrifice. The alternative to the life she chose appears to be that of her sister, who married a drunk who beats her. At least Naellia chose how and where to relinquish her will.
The film ends with an ocean of small bobbing lanterns floating outside the church in the waning light. One of the nuns says that “the death of a nun is a joyous thing.” Surrounded by people who care for you and help you on your way, I’m sure it must be.