A surprising number of people are bored or offended by films which do not tell a straightforward narrative or which do not unfold a documentary in the usual fashion. That would explain the steady stream of people towards the exits during this nonfiction film.
The Gardener is classic Mahkmalbaf. That's Mohsen Mahkmalbaf, the Iranian director whose films, even his fiction features, are always also about him making the film. In this case, the film investigates the Baha'i faith in particular but also poses the larger question or whether it is possible for religion to be a force for good in the world. Mahkmalbaf senior is not religious but he falls on the pro side of this argument while his fellow cameraman, his son Maysam, is a skeptic. Mahkmalbaf senior spends most of the film following a gardener around the Baha'i World Center grounds in Haifa. He is a believer originally from Papua New Guinea and he slowly and lovingly tends the flowers and cacti and also takes a lot of naps. Maysam wants to probe other more direct leads and interviews but he is already convinced that even the most peaceful religion will descend into violence given time.
Rarely is there a shot which doesn't also include one of the filmmakers. We see the beauty and peace of the garden and hear the stories of a handful of Baha'i from around the world but we always see the process of filming at the same time. Mahkmalbaf always inserts himself into his stories in all the right ways and the effect is revelatory rather than obtrusive.
So we don't learn a hell of a lot about the history of Baha'i or its tenets (besides love each other and God and we are all leaves of the same tree) but Mahkmalbaf delivers a feeling which brings the type of understanding which does not come through reason. The Gardener is full of beauty but it also has a dark edge. It is full of play -- I never tire of Mahkmalbaf's sense of humour. And it is wondrous to be truly inside the deft vision of a real artist who disrupts expectations.