Film Review: The GardenerImages and metaphors whimsically combine in a fine, fast-flowing documentary introducing the Baha'i faith.
The Gardener marks the first time in decades—perhaps since the Iranian Revolution in 1979—that an Iranian filmmaker has shot a movie in Israel, and what it has to say about religion and world peace is as radical a statement as unconventional filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Bicyclist, Kandahar) has ever made. Filmed amid the extravagant colors of nature at the Baha’i world headquarters in Haifa, Mohsen and his cameraman-son Maysam Makhmalbaf amicably debate the role of religion in life and war in an engaging, good-humored introduction to the Baha’i Faith. The deep spirituality it discusses so intelligently will appeal to open-minded viewers and should have an extended life via culture channels.
The filmmakers from Iran turn up in the sprawling Baha’i gardens with their small DV cameras and sound equipment. There is never a trace of any more crew. In the idyllic garden colored by a chalk white path, bright red geraniums and velvety green cypresses, a hushed Zen feeling reigns. Mohsen begins with an off-camera statement announcing he’s not a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, a Jew or a Baha’i, but an agnostic who has come to the garden to make a film with his son about the Baha’i faith. At the end of the film he will slightly revise this statement to assert, in the spirit of Baha’i unity, he is all of these religions. Coming from an Iranian, these are the kinds of courageous statements that have made fanatics target the Makhmalbaf family in the past.
Rather than a dry exposition of what makes the faith tick, the film uses a variety of methods to talk about it. Baha’u’llah founded it 170 years ago in Persia and there is brief archive footage of his son Abdu’l-Baha as a dignified elderly man, under whose leadership the faith spread to Europe and America. Stressing the need for world peace and the unity of God, religion and humanity, it teaches that Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed were among the messengers of humanity’s evolution. Today it counts more than six million followers worldwide.
The main characters in the documentary are father, son and the articulate gardener Eona, a native of Papua New Guinea, who brings a feeling of deep inner devotion as he talks about its tenets while he tends the flower beds.
Possibly pretending to disagree, Mohsen and Maysam squabble over whether religion has a role to play in today’s world. The young man accuses his father of deviating from their neutral intentions and promoting the Baha’i faith in the film. For Maysam, religions divide people and are behind too many wars. So they agree that he will film the negative side of the Baha’i faith and Mohsen the positive parts, but this adds an odd note of hilarity when Maysam’s very next scene shows a glowing devotee twirling around the garden and claiming ecstatically, “We’re all leaves on one tree!” and “If people throw stones, give them back fruit!” She later explains more about the faith in very intelligible terms, but the feeling of New Age lingers. Like two other young people interviewed in the film, she has an American accent.
Their “dispute” also touches the unanswerable question (a favorite of Iranian films) of what is cinema and its mission, Hollywood stars or real stories? Is it a waste of time to film slow shots of a garden few people will want to see? Or is filming a kind of meditation in itself, as Mohsen suggests pretty persuasively, that helps you to develop your perceptions and teaches you to see more clearly?
Maysam also visits Jerusalem and dons a yarmulke to visit the Wailing Wall, where he films a group of laughing Israeli soldiers. True to his promise, his reflections on religion and “the metaphysical world” are very pessimistic. He notes that religions all begin by promoting peace and end with revolution; they start out emancipating women and end up enslaving them. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban use religion to turn innocent children into terrorists. If religions cause wars, he concludes, it’s better not to have them.
Mohsen counters that they are investigating a nonviolent faith whose followers are persecuted in Iran; many are in prison. He’s entranced by the reverential way the gardener cares for his plants, which he likens to praying. The final scenes tip his hand, as Mohsen and Eona “mirror their hearts” by carrying big mirrors around the garden that reflect their red flowers around them, then stand on a stormy beach and watch the breakers roll in.
—The Hollywood Reporter