From the moment that Elizabeth Mirzaei's lens reveals Natalia, we are enthralled at the image of this vibrant, vulnerable, intelligent, and deeply committed young woman residing within the walls of the rural Ohio Byzantine Catholic monastery where she is discerning the rest of her life.
At first, she seems as if she may very well be a misfit for this type of vigilant life committed to prayer and hospitality. Early in Mirzaei's mesmerizing feature doc Natalia, she openly confesses her love for men and her belief that she would be a good mother. Simply watching her, it is easy to believe that this engineering graduate from the prestigious Colorado School of Mines could easily succeed in any path she would choose.
Yet, she is here setting out on a path to become a Catholic nun. The monastic community in which she resides at times defies our own stereotyped expectations of the monastic life, though it is also apparent that amidst such contemporary flourishes as a podcast Natalia appears on alongside her "spiritual father" Father Michael, this is a deeply committed community ideally located in a rural Ohio Amish area.
Mirzaei, co-director of the 2021 Oscar-nominated short film Three Songs for Benazir, has crafted an immersive and emotionally honest experience that brings to mind one of my own favorite documentaries of all time, Into Great Silence. Filmed in black-and-white with a simplified square framing, Natalia introduces us to Natalia and makes us absolutely love her and this world into which she may very well be committing herself.
The film premiered at True/False and Visions du Reel and is screening on the day I write this review at DC/Dox with additional screenings already lined up. Mirzaei has crafted a work of wonder, a film that has captured both the life and death involved in committing oneself to the monastic life while also capturing the authentic joy of monastic life in all its simplicity and all its glory. Natalia rather gloriously humanizes what it means to live the monastic life explaining eloquently that one shouldn’t assume her holiness has led her to devote her life to Christ, but that such a life is necessary for her to be holy.
Indeed, Natalia is practically the perfect cinematic representation of what it means to have faith with doubt part of the journey, fear to be expected, struggle to be walked through, and the joyful embrace of monastic virtues such as poverty, chastity, and obedience both sacrifice and privilege. Natalia is a work of wonder at least partly because this woman, Natalia, is herself a work of wonder whose entire journey here feels filled with love and light.
There aren't a lot of spirituality-centered documentaries that have the courage to embrace the full spectrum of what it means to be a human being committed to the religious life. Yet, Mirzaei's Natalia lives into this embrace beautifully. Natalia made me laugh. Natalia made me cry. Natalia made me pray. Natalia made me love. Whether running on a playground children who obviously adore her or hunkered down and watching her beloved Star Trek, Natalia shares with us her journey of discernment and the fullness of who she is that helps us to understand that discernment.
Simultaneously simple yet profound, intimate and universal, Natalia is a tender and insightful exploration of what it means to love beyond self and to surrender to belief.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic