The exiled Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Kandahar”) and his son Maysam are both filmmakers. When it comes to religion, though, the similarities end. Mohsen is a self-professed agnostic while Maysam is an atheist. This inherent tension is the through-line for “The Gardener,” a collaborative documentary in which father and son investigate the 170-year-old Bahai faith, which, although based in Haifa, Israel, has its roots in Persia.
“Investigate” is perhaps too strong a term for such a free-form movie. “The Gardener” is equal parts lyrical, daffy, and trippy.
Much of the movie is shot in the ravishingly beautiful Bahai gardens in Haifa. Immediately an inadvertent comic note is sounded: Maysam, who has been running down religion, encounters a young, presumably American woman, a Bahai follower in a flowing white skirt, gamboling through the fields. “We are all of one garden and leaves of one tree,” she tells him, and he is alternately charmed and dumbstruck. It’s possible that her entrance, as with other subsequent moments in this film, was staged for the cameras, but I doubt it. Her flower-child simplicity is so gaga it couldn’t be faked.
To the film’s credit, it never disparages true believers like this woman. Maysam may not be on board with Bahai, or with any other religion, but he cares enough to root out why he doesn’t care. He exits the garden and travels to Jerusalem, a sacred site to three of the world’s great religions – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – and marvels at their close physical proximity. He films at the Western Wall and in the great mosques and churches. He tells us, “communal singing stirs religious feelings in me,” adding, “I have to guard against that.”
Mohsen, meanwhile, appears to have gone all hippie-dippie back in Haifa. He befriends Eona, a third-generation Bahai from Papua New Guinea, who is the gardener upon whom the film is based. Eona tends to the flowers and tells Mohsen that his son, despite his contentious disbelief, is a good sort. And how does he know this? The flowers the young man walks beside react favorably to him. To demonstrate, Eona cups some flowers in his hands and offers up a mini tutorial on their soulfulness.
Eona also spends what looks like an inordinate amount of time sleeping on the grounds, but maybe he’s meditating. He becomes a kind of mascot for Mohsen, who says of him: “He’s not only gardening. In a way, he’s praying.” By the end of the film Mohsen appears to have acquired some of the woollier trappings of the environment. When Maysam returns and asks his father where his camera is, he replies that he planted it “so it would flower.” Mohsen holds up a large mirror and traipses about reflecting the garden’s bright display.
None of this appears to have anything to do with the religious debate the film has purportedly set up. But Mohsen as a filmmaker is seeking out something more intangible here, something that can only be captured on the fly. What’s a bit nutty is that he doesn’t allow for the discomfiting fact that tyrants and atheists have also been known to cultivate beautiful gardens. No matter. He may have started out to make a treatise about religiousness and human rights but he ended up with something weirder, a personal diary about the ethereality of religious experience. Grade: B (Unrated.)