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

This pleasing documentary from Guido Santi and Tina Mascara charts the improbable story of Nicholas 'Nicky' Vreeland.


Nicholas Vreeland, Khylongla Rinpoche, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, John Avedon, Alexander Vreeland, Ptolemy Thompkins, Tonne Goodman, Wendy Goodman, Frederick Vreeland. (English, Tibetan, Italian dialogue)

“Monk With a Camera” charts the improbable life path of Nicholas “Nicky” Vreeland from blue-blooded jet setter to Dalai Lama-appointed abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Aptly serene in tone, this pleasing documentary by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara (of the excellent “Chris and Don: A Love Story”) has a built-in mix of retro celebrity and spiritual appeal that should serve it well in attracting niche buyers in all formats.

The grandson of fabled tastemaker and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, raised by his equally glamorous parents in globe-trotting high style — at least until they divorced, at which point he and a brother were left more or less to their own devices in Paris — Vreeland became fascinated by photography in his teens. Fortunately, his grandmother was able to secure him an immediate apprenticeship under legendary snapper Irving Penn; he also worked with Richard Avedon before striking out on his own.

Described as being “a very committed dandy” and “a complete gentleman in terms of comportment,” he dated high-profile women and otherwise led an externally glamorous life. But it all left him dissatisfied. He began meditating, then in the late ’70s took the then-shocking step of shaving his head from “some desire to cleanse … to be out there naked, in a sense.”

Of course, that haircut would prove quite convenient when he found his calling, as did the theft of his cameras during an apartment break-in, since a resulting insurance settlement bankrolled several years of studying Buddhism. When Vreeland decided to become a monk, the Dalai Lama himself sent him to a Tibetan refugee settlement just across the Indian border. He stayed there for years as the monastery’s population swelled. He then moved back to the U.S., ghostwriting books for His Holiness, and translating lectures for his other spiritual master, Khylonga Rinpoche.

More recently, he oversaw the building of a badly needed larger monastic complex to replace his old one. When the 2008 economic crash made many promised donations go up in smoke, he re-entered the world of photography, traveling around the globe raising nearly half a million dollars selling his own new images. Most recently, he was installed as the now-completed Rato Monastery’s abbot — the first Westerner in nearly three millennia of Tibetan Buddhist history to achieve such a position.

Clearly regarded with great affection by his mentors (as well as supporters like Richard Gere), Vreeland makes very pleasant company, a man who can namedrop “Jackie” (as in Kennedy Onassis) and “His Holiness” without the least hint of ego. The directors adopt a similarly unpretentious, bemused tone in following him around. Subject’s past adventures are illustrated in animation segments done in a deliberately simple, ’70s TV-cartoon style — an offbeat choice that somehow seems just right.

Attractive lensing and scoring grace a thoughtful tech/design package.

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

Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Jan. 28, 2014. (In Palm Springs Film Festival; Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 90 MIN.


(Documentary) An Asphalt Stars production. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Vishwanath Alluri, Guido Santi, Tina Mascara. Executive producers, Alluri, Andrew Herwitz, Co-producer, Leonardo Colla.


Directed by Guido Santi, Tina Mascara. Camera (color, HD), Ugo Lo Pinto, Ralph Q. Smith; editors, Santi, Mascara; music, Pivio DeScalzi, Aldo DeScalzi; animation, Joe Rothenberg; motion graphics, Sloane Korach; sound, Andy Hay.


Nicholas Vreeland, Khylongla Rinpoche, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, John Avedon, Alexander Vreeland, Ptolemy Thompkins, Tonne Goodman, Wendy Goodman, Frederick Vreeland. (English, Tibetan, Italian dialogue)

More Film

  • Chinese actor Xu Zheng holds his

    Golden Horse Organizers Set Clashing Date With China's Golden Rooster Awards

    The prestigious Golden Horse Awards announced Wednesday that it will hold its annual ceremony in Taiwan on the same day this year as China’s Communist-backed Golden Rooster Awards – which virtually assures that no major mainland Chinese talent will attend the event known as Asia’s Oscars on November 23. Hong Kong director Johnnie To will [...]

  • Berlin Film Festival Placeholder Berlinale

    Key Berlin Film Festival Venue Set to Close - or Is It?

    The announcement that German exhibitor CineStar would close its multiplex at Berlin’s famed Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz has thrown the cinema’s participation as a key venue for the Berlin Film Festival into doubt. Whether it actually shutters, however, remains to be seen. British-based Vue International is awaiting approval from German antitrust officials on its [...]

  • Stuber

    ‘Stuber’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Twentieth Century Fox claims the top spot in spending with “Stuber.” Ads placed for the comedy had an estimated media value of $4.91 million through Sunday for 1,325 national ad airings on 42 networks. [...]

  • BTS - J-Hope, V, Jungkook, Jimin,

    BTS' 'Bring the Soul: The Movie' Gets Global Theatrical Release

    BTS will be back on the big screen this summer. The Korean pop group announced today that their latest feature film, “Bring the Soul: The Movie,” will have a global release on August 7. It arrives just six and a half months after the septet’s last film release, “Love Yourself in Seoul.” “Bring the Soul” [...]

  • Box Office: 'Yesterday' Movie Takes on

    Box Office: 'Annabelle Comes Home' and 'Yesterday' Take on 'Toy Story 4'

    The weekend box office has gone to the dolls. “Annabelle Comes Home,” a supernatural horror film about a possessed toy, is facing off against another band of plastic figurines: “Toy Story 4.” Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” is expected to dominate box office charts again over newcomers “Annabelle Comes Home” and “Yesterday,” a fantasy musical set [...]

  • 'The Current War' Trailer: Benedict Cumberbatch,

    Benedict Cumberbatch and Nicholas Hoult Feud in 'The Current War' Trailer (Watch)

    101 Studios has released an official new trailer for the Martin Scorcese-produced thriller, “The Current War,”  offering a glimpse into the dramatic 19th century battle over electricity that became known as the “war of the currents.” The film, which is a dramatization of real-life events, will follow the tumultuous journey of Thomas Edison, played by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content