Peter Carey’s 1988 novel “Oscar and Lucinda” contains a section in which a glass church is floated down a river. It’s such a striking image that one imagines it must have been the spur for the whole intricate story, just as the sight of a large tree borne on a barge, cutting a crisp swath through calm blue coastal waters and trailing an arc of questions in its wake, might trigger a documentary as quietly magnificent and strange as Salomé Jashi’s “Taming the Garden.”
Across an immaculately slow and beautiful 92 minutes, Jashi’s film sometimes recalls experimental essays like Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Leviathan,” with similarly outstanding cinematography from Jashi and co-DP Goga Devdariani. Occasionally, with a shot across treetops in which one patch of greenery moves with bizarre animal grace while all else is stationary, it looks like one of Tolkien’s Ents has decided to take a stroll. And as the film’s themes of human versus nature emerge, one can’t help thinking of Werner Herzog, especially with the sheer incongruity of that floating tree obscurely evoking the stranded steamboat of “Fitzcarraldo.” Still, the closest parallel remains that drifting church in Carey’s book: this film too is surreal, serene and maybe just a little bit sacred.
Cryptically, elliptically, without narration or any outside intervention, “Taming the Garden” relates a curious recent incident in rural Georgia when the billionaire ex-prime minister — still widely regarded as among the most powerful men in the country — decided to populate his vast private garden with mature trees. And so his people scoured the countryside and struck deals with locals, paying them and promising infrastructure upgrades if they let their ancient beeches and acacias be carried away, by road and sea, to his home. Though this peculiar saga actually happened, Jashi’s film plays more like myth than journalism, as though she is documenting the folklore of the future as it is happening. “Once upon a time a rich man looked out over his garden and was sad because he had no trees …” — so might begin the fairy tale that Georgian villagers will, in a couple of centuries’ time, tell their children.
There’s a steady, almost forensic interest in the machinery and manpower that make such an impractical whim a reality. In hypnotic detail, the perfectly still camera watches a digger pulling away clods of striated earth. It is fascinated by drill bits and pile drivers and pipes being laid into muddy banks. Water sluices across the metal deck of the barge and makes the veins of rust redden like bleeding wounds — the photography imbues industrial processes with poetry. But there is also humanity here, along with territorial disputes, arguments about contracts and jealousies over one guy’s good fortune in owning a valuable tree when his neighbor’s is comparatively worthless. In kitchens, men debate the ethics of selling their forests in return for better roads. In dusky living rooms babushkas tell their sons to get the money up front. And in little knots gathered for smoke breaks, burly workers swap stories about the billionaire like he’s a mythic king. There are rumors that he wants to live forever and believes old trees will prolong his life.
“We should be grateful!” rages one guy. “Who gives a fuck about trees?” asks another. But even when the locals don’t acknowledge it, Jashi’s watchful, listening film is tuned to the wavelength of their collective, subconscious regret. Whatever they might say, there’s an understanding that to hack into those 15-meter-wide root systems is to tear into the very fabric of the community. And if there’s a certain glamour attached to the chosen specimens, others are mere collateral damage: a whole row of lesser trees is removed so that a hundred-year-old heirloom can be taken away, regally upright on a flatbed, without getting its branches tangled in some kind of weird arboreal farewell.
Certainly, by the time of this last tree’s removal, as night falls and the buzzing of chain saws and the clanking of the diggers has ceased (Philippe Ciompi’s soundscapes fuse superbly with Celia Stroom’s music design throughout), there is no doubt that the little party that gathers in witness is holding a vigil or a wake. A couple pull chairs onto their lawn to watch. Someone smokes his first cigarette in 30 years. An older woman crosses herself and cries quietly. Unlike, presumably, any of them, we get to visit the private paradise. There are hillocks and patches of verdant shrubbery. There’s a bamboo forest like something in Kyoto. And there are spreading trees dotted about in random clusters, betraying little evidence of the trauma of their transplantation. It is nature so artfully sculpted to look natural that for a second you might think it is. And then the sprinklers turn on.