You can’t question Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s significance in the development of modern Iranian cinema, or his service as its ambassador on the world-cinema stage; you might wonder, however, why the legendary director chose to conduct his philosophical inquiry into the nature of faith in such a ponderous, puncturing manner. Declaring in the opening scene that he’s not a religious man—“I’m just an agnostic filmmaker,” he modestly says—Makhmalbaf and his son, Maysam, travel to the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel, in the name of human rights, as those who practice Baha’i in contemporary Iran face constant persecution. The duo talk to several worshippers, including, yes, a gardener and a hippyish young woman given to bumper-sticker platitudes about peace, tolerance, etc., while running around in a shawl. (Abandon hope, ye with a low tolerance for New Age blather.) That is, when they are not turning the cameras on themselves, filming each other and playing devil’s advocate for the notion that religion causes both healing and hurt.
Self-reflexivity is, of course, nothing new to Iranian films or Makhmalbaf’s work, but it verges close to parody here—there’s no sense that any metatextual musings on the medium are being put forth, just a lot of talking-points banter playing out in front of the lens for no real reason. Maysam’s trip outside the gardens to the Western Wall does lead to some soul-searching voiceovers about God(s), yet even that quickly devolves into shots of the younger filmmaker walking in and out of the frame, brandishing his Sony Cam and distracting from the subjects at hand. There are times to cast objectivity to the four winds, and there are times to step away from the hall of mirrors; the key is knowing when to serve the message over the messenger, a balance this semidocumentary never figures out.
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