Friday, August 2, 2013

All about Baha'i: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's odd father & son documentary, THE GARDENER


If a new film called THE GARDENER isn't one of the weirder hybrid documentaries in quite awhile, I'll be surprised. Paid for, I'd guess, by the Committee to Make the Baha'i Religion a Household Word, this nearly (and oddly) humor-free mockumen-tary supposedly tracks the adventures of an Iranian father/
son team as it visits Israel and the huge and beautiful garden taken care of by a disciple of the Baha'i religion, who is happy -- as are all the other acolytes rounded up by the filmmakers -- to give us a grounding in this unusual religion, which appears determined to keep itself abreast of modernity in a changing world. Amen to that, as too many religions seem content to continue mimicking the dark ages.

One of the special enjoyments that go along with a blog (and a no-paying job) like this one is the fact that you can move from covering a sleaze-fest such as The Canyons one day to a film about religion and the betterment of the world the next. Where else could your interest move from A to Z so quickly? Unfortunately in this case, neither film is very good. The writer/director of The Gardener is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, shown at left, who earlier gave us Kandahar and The Silence. Here he is trying something quite different: style-wise, you might call it a kind of hybrid documentary in which father and son explore a religion new to them, as it is banned in their home country of Iran.

So, then, we have what the press materials refer to as "a poetic exploration of religion, in particular the Baha’i faith, in today's world, told from two distinct perspectives: that of the director, and of the cinematographer, his son Maysam, as they travel to make a documentary as Iranians in Israel."

This could be quite something -- if we got much of a sense of what the religion actually comprises. But its adherents we meet here are content to give us generalities and breathless praise. It is to be commended that this religion understands how the world, and it, must change: Baha'i is in favor of the emancipation of women, but do we really to see and hear a schlocky "tree" metaphor being taught to children by one of these adherents?  (Later we are told that "Flowers don't fight." Well, no: they're flowers.) Clearly this religion is less power-hungry than most -- which is great, but also probably accounts for its being such a marginal player.

What's worse, that gardener (above) that the film supposedly "follows" is little more than a cipher about whom we learn the basics and that's it (he's a tenth-generation Baha'i from Papua New Guinea). Actually, there are two gardeners shown here, the other a young man of mixed race who also tends the lovely grounds.

Stylistically, it's all pretty much hand-held with occasional use of a stationery camera. But there are two oddities along the way. One is a back-and-forth movement from color to black-and-white, which at first I thought indicated a kind of dream sequence. But as it is used so often, I think not. Why is it used at all? I have no idea.

A better and more unusual surprise comes toward the finale, when someone, that gardener or the director, makes reference, maybe re religion, to images and/or mirrors. Suddenly mirrors are being used all over the place, from garden (above) to seashore (below), and how they make a frame within the frame is quite interesting. The quality of the color even seems to change slightly in the mirror.

Nearly an hour into this 82-minute movie, son (below) grows annoyed with dad, whom he insists is making a movie to promote religion. So off he goes to the local bazaar and then explores the famous church, mosque and wall that serve as major symbols for, respectively, Christians, Muslims and Jews. He wonders aloud why god would have planted these places of worship so close together. "Wasn't there enough space in the world? Didn't he (Editor's note: yup, it's the male gender) know that his believers would not make good neighbors?"

It seems to me that here was an opportunity to really explore religion and belief, or maybe just to explore that amazing garden -- wait till you see the gorgeous pansies on view! -- and find out more about either or both. Instead we get mostly rudimentary babble, and a few generation-gap moments (son wants speed and maybe casting Brad Pitt as the gardener; dad opts for moment-to-moment reality). We do learn a bit about a religion that's probably worth knowing. Otherwise, the film offers what we would have called, back in the day, diddly-squat.

The exclusive Los Angeles engagement of The Gardener begins today Friday, August 2nd at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and on Friday, August 9, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. Any further screenings (you can request one by clicking here), I imagine, will be listed on the film's web site. Eventually, I'd guess, we'll be able to see the movie on DVD, VOD and digital outlets.

4 comments:

GWD said...

It's always interesting to see how other's view something you have come to know intimately. As a Baha'i I found the funniest line in your film review to be your aside about one of the gardeners of the Bsha'i Gardens.-- "he's a tenth-generation Baha'i from Papua New Guinea." The Faith didn't come to Pupua New Guinea until 1953, hardly long ago enough for there to be a 10th generation Baha'i from that fair land An Iranian-born religion based now in Israel has devoted adherents from the shores of the Soloman Sea -- amazing!

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for your comment, GWD. I didn't realize that the Baha'i religion was born in Iran, and I don't think the movie makes that clear. Interesting! Sorry for my mistake, but I thought that is what the gardener was telling us. Maybe he meant he was a 10th-gen Papua New Guinean who practices Baha'i...? (Unless his generations moved a hell of lot faster than mine did.)

And you are right about how others view something that you know intimately. There is always a rather large disconnect there, I think.

I would be interested to know your thoughts about this film, if and when you get the chance to see it (which I hope you will). Please share them with us then.

Anonymous said...

Just returned from a screening, the papa new genian was a third generation Baha'i.

James van Maanen said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for clarifying that point about the fellow taking care of the garden.