Last Sunday when Matthew McConaughey accepted Best Actor honors at the Academy Awards it signaled the actor’s spiritual inclinations. His shout-out to God, one of the few times an actor has ever explicitly thanked Him, positions McConaughey as one of the few actors to truly expose his spirituality within a public forum - a forum that typically does not acknowledge God or religion. This is brought up in contrast to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s new film The Gardner, which screened for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, because it reverts much of what occurred last Sunday night. In The Gardener, Mohsen and Maysam Makhmalbaf probe the Hanging Gardens of Haifa in Israel. Located near Jerusalem - where worship occurs at the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Chapel of Ascension - it’s a cross section of spirituality. Yet it is Maysam who is at odds. In a spatial setting that is so overwhelmingly dependent on scripture and religion, he contends that it is that very thing that tears people apart. Like McConaughey, Maysam Makhmalbaf’s rhetoric is speaking at odds with a communal belief system that operates in opposition with the greater whole.
The father and son debate that composes much of the dialogue in The Gardener is one of polite difference. Mohsen, the experienced filmmaker who is more methodical in his ways, contests that spirituality is inherently a good thing - his observations of the Bahá'í faith promote the notion that the religion instills a sense of tenderness and humanity. Maysam, however, dispels religion as a tool used to instigate hatred, referencing the disharmony of Israel as a prime result of it. The Bahá'í, despite their doctrine of pacifism, are a persecuted people in that their interpretation of other religious doctrines - particularly Islam and Christianity - actually promotes harmony. That is to say, the two religions are condensed into unified theories that aim for the same thing: to cultivate virtue.
The title The Gardener refers to Moshen’s observations of the Bahá'í’s chief gardener who gives the picture it’s more flowery observations of faith: “We are all flowers of the same garden” he announces with solemn regard. His observations are, for the most part, a little granola. That goes for most of the selected interviews with those at the Bahá'í temple, who convey a message of peace. These interviews have a sense of novelty in that they expose a particularly lofty perception of reality; a reality that seems particularly jarring given the conflicted spirituality that’s a stone’s throw away in Jerusalem. This in itself isn’t especially cinematic and while many of the questions asked through the film are of interest, there isn’t anything especially captivating or even revealing about The Gardener’s observations. Moshen and Maysam Makhmalbaf’s discussions are playfully energetic, with their arguments on how to appropriately capture the images they’re viewing providing genuine laughs. But it’s certainly not enough to sustain an entire feature, particularly one that lacks much of the necessary contextual information on all the religions at play to make it all meld. You’re left observing a culture that’s too radically not your own.