Portait of a Garden is the first film directed by Rosie Stapel, whose film career to date has been entirely in art direction and production design. This is absolutely not a trivial fact. The film, which has been sneaking around quietly for almost two years on the festival circuit, and is currently enjoying a wisp of a release in New York City, could be said to be about a great many things - the inexorable march of time and the beautiful things lost to modernity; the importance of eating locally-sourced foods; European history since the 16th Century - but what it is most of all, is a loving tribute to things that are designed. Gardens, of course, and the plants within gardens, and the movies in which gardens appear.

The setting is a garden in the Netherlands. It's hard to be more specific than that; presumably it is attached in some way to an estate, but one of the key elements of Stapel's approach is that we see little to nothing of the world outside the garden itself for a very long stretch of the movie. The garden is owned by 60-year-old Daan van der Have, who also serves as its primary gardener; but the true genius of the place is 85-year-old Jan Freriks, the master pruner, who embodies not just his own lifetime of experience with tending to even the smallest details of how each distinct plant needs to be treated, but also the experience of centuries past, all the way back to the great gardeners of Louis XIV of France. The film has no protagonist to speak of, but Freriks is its animating spirit; the vessel through which the accumulated wisdom of the whole history of a great art is poured out in front of us, demonstrating without words a precise craft that I should have to assume most of us think about in the most glancing way, if at all.

Freriks is also the centerpiece of the movie's loose musings on wisdom passing away; without anybody saying it out loud, we get the sense that this exhaustively artisanal work is, or is at least perceived to be anachronistic in the 21st Century. At any rate, Freriks seems to make it clear enough that he wouldn't probably still be doing this at 85 if there was anybody young to take it over. Talking to an apprentice, a young man probably in his 20s or early 30s, Freriks openly and maybe even happily talks about how he expects that he'll be dead within a year; plainly he regards his life as full and complete, and he will not regret passing the garden on to younger hands, as long as those hands are there to take it. Hearing him talk this way, in between his focused conversations with van der Have about the future prospects of the garden's yield, and his five-year outlook for improving certain crops, it's almost impossible not to reflect on the old quote: "a society is great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in".

Notwithstanding all of that - along with the simple fact that Freriks is one of the most interesting people to show up in a movie in 2016, despite barely speaking and giving us no sense at all of what his life is like when he's not pruning - Portrait of a Garden is certainly not a film about the experience of being human, except at the edges. The title is neither figurative nor inaccurate: this is, indeed, the portrait of the garden, taken over the course of twelve months, starting with the first pruning of the grapes in February. For the next year, Stapel's camera soaks in as much as she can find, sometimes craning in next to van der Have and Freriks to watch them work, sometimes holding back to catch them in wide shots that put more emphasis on the plants and the space containing them than the men necessarily. Sometimes, there aren't any people at all, but simply lingering shots of the plants themselves, introduced with stately onscreen titles like the dramatis personae of a silent film, identified for us when they first appear and most times thereafter. The fig, the pear, the grapes of course, and perhaps dozens more specific varietals enter the film throughout the changing seasons, and one of the most curious, wonderful things about the movie is that some of them really do start to feel like characters: when we see the same plants in the late summer that we met in the spring, now full and verdant and bearing fruit, it feels uncannily like a narrative arc being fulfilled.

Stapel treats all of this with exaggerated formality, though such an attitude is befitting a garden which has passed through as many generations as this one has; it is a relic of a more formal age and worldview. Accordingly, Portrait of a Garden is unabashedly traditionalist in all ways, trying as hard as it can to feel untouched by time; the music is a selection of new compositions in Baroque styles, and we only rarely see any gardening technology more advanced than a sharp new pair of branch clippers. When, towards the end, we finally follow the garden's produce into the restaurants and grocery stores of the local community, it feels deeply, profoundly jarring, the world reiterating itself in a not-entirely-welcome fashion.

Other than that interlude, the overall tone is of practically religious contemplation of the garden, the gardeners, and the abundant plant life. The editing is languid and free from any particular rhythm other than the simplest: when we're done looking at one tableaux, it's time to move on. The images of the plants in the garden, tenderly loved by the gardeners and thereupon embraced by the camera, are all: Stapel is obviously quite invested in the idea that being outdoors, in a well-tended garden on a pleasant but quiet day, is the most tranquil and restorative of all things. As well she might. The film can't fully capture the actual experience of being in a garden, but it's a nobly earnest attempt, with the sounds and lighting of the un-retouched outdoors gently radiating off the screen (in one of the few overt jokes in a generally wry but never insincere movie, Stapel extends a lighting credit to the sun). All of this is undeniably conservative, adoring the old-fashioned while thinking so little of the new that it isn't even addressed, but I for one found it more or less impossible not to quickly end up on the movie's side. It probably helps to feel predisposed to spending time in gardens and outdoors, but given that bias, it's quite a little tiny miracle of cinema, capturing something abiding and true about the relaxing soulfulness of watching the blue sky on a crisp winter day or listening to a summer wind blowing through tree leaves. It is a simple film, and delicate, and abidingly good.