Movies from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” have stirred political passions and ruffled international diplomatic feathers, and now comes “The Gardener.”
There are a number of ironies about this lyrical documentary. To start with, one of Iran’s greatest directors shot it in Israel, the Zionist bête noire of his country’s regime.
It is a movie about the common humanity and worth of men and women everywhere but has been met with emotional denunciations of the director in his native Tehran.
The director, writer, cinematographer and a main character of the movie is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most prolific and honored auteurs, whose 2001 movie “Kandahar” — about an Afghan woman traveling through Taliban-ruled parts of her country — was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest 100 films of all time.
“Gardener” does not fit the common catchwords of today’s movie reviews. The film has been categorized as a surreal docudrama, but it is also a prolonged inquiry into the virtues and evils of organized religion and into the art of horticulture.
Not least, it offers an extended tour of one of the most beautiful spots in Israel, the Baha’i World Center and gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the city and port of Haifa.
Working with the 57-year-old director is his son, Maysam Makhmalbaf (for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to father and son by their first names), who also serves as the irreverent voice of the younger generation and his father’s sparring partner in religious disputes.
The film’s title character is Ririva “Eona” Mabi, a middle-aged man from Papua New Guinea, who goes about tending the gardens’ magnificent flora not as a repetitive chore but as a form of prayer and worship.
In one slow, lovely scene, Eona carries some water in his cupped hands and then feeds it, drop by drop, into the leaves and stem of a single flower.
It speaks to the sometimes-odd symbolism of the movie to later see Mohsen imitate the gardener by planting the single leg to which his camera is attached into the ground, anointing the camera with water from his cupped hands.
While both Mohsen and Maysam persistently film one another in the process of filming their subjects, the father’s focus is on the gardener — working, napping, watching birds fly overhead — plumbing new depths of the man’s character.
The son is more restless and eclectic, in one passage interviewing three young Baha’i volunteers, all Americans, who had come to work at the center of their faith.
Maysam also leaves the gardens briefly and takes his camera to the Old City of Jerusalem to film three faiths at prayer — Jews at the Western Wall, Muslims at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
As he wanders, Maysam muses that all religions use the same rituals and similar interior architectures, the same candles and contrasts between dark and light, “everything to leave reality and enter a metaphysical world.”
The young Iranian also can’t help wondering what would happen if his native country went nuclear and bombed the Western Wall, which would leave the sacred Islamic Al-Aqsa in rubble.
Baha’ism was founded nearly 170 years ago in Persia and holds that every religion represents one facet of God, that divine revelation is a continuing process, that all humans, men and women, are equal and advocates universal education and world peace.
Its founder was promptly exiled to an Ottoman penal colony in Acre, another Baha’i holy site in Israel, and members of the faith have been intermittently persecuted in its founding country.
The film’s setting lends itself naturally to a running debate between father and son on the nature of religion.
“All wars have their roots in organized religion,” argues the younger man, to which the older man responds that the younger generation has substituted worship of technology for religion and points to the peaceful philosophy of their Baha’i hosts.
Young Maysam remains skeptical. “If the Baha’i were in power, they would start persecuting other faiths,” he maintains.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf knows something about the intolerance of those in power, whether religious or secular.
As a young filmmaker, he was imprisoned for four years by the shah’s regime, and was an ardent supporter of the clerical revolution that toppled the shah. Gradually, however, he became disillusioned with the new rulers, and after the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Makhmalbaf went into exile and now lives in London.
For the present Iranian authorities it was bad enough that Mohsen broke the taboo against shooting a film in the land of the Zionist Little Satan, but when he accepted a special jury prize last month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Iranian establishment went ballistic.
He was denounced as a traitor and as a man “with no roots,” while the head of the Film Museum of Iran ordered the “cleansing” of a special section at the museum devoted to the director’s works.
One group of Iranian artists and intellectuals expressed deep dismay that the director would visit a country with “apartheid” policies.
However, a smaller but still sizable group of artists lauded Mohsen in an open letter for his courage in breaking the taboo against visiting Israel. Speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian, the director himself described the taboo as a “cancer” infecting Iran’s intellectual community for more than 60 years.
In his acceptance speech at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Mohsen dedicated his prize to “all the artists, politicians and intellectuals and people in Iran and Israel who work toward peace between our two countries and believe peace is possible.”
“The Gardener” opens Aug. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.