Early on in the pellucid Bengali film "The Clay Bird," two boys at a madrasa, or Islamic seminary, are allowed a rare moment of play. Toys are forbidden, but with casual ingenuity they decide to toss around an invisible ball, and soon they're laughing as if it really existed. Like water in a field of stones, childhood finds a way around all obstacles.
But this is East Pakistan during the late 1960s, and the obstacles keep coming. The first feature directed by documentary filmmaker Tareque Masud is based on his own memories of the period -- he too was sent to a madrasa as a child -- and it's a beautifully simple portrait of a country in ferment and a family struggling to define its soul. More than anything, "The Clay Bird" tries to separate the strands of fanaticism and open-mindedness that course through Islam -- and by extension through every religion. Given the current world situation, this is of more than passing interest.
The country would be reborn in 1971 as the secular democratic state of Bangladesh, after a bloody uprising against an Islamic military junta installed by West Pakistan. These political maneuverings remain offstage; "The Clay Bird" is tightly focused on young Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu) and the debate on the nature of faith that is his daily life.
His father, Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay), a homeopathic practitioner in a small village, was attracted to European ideas in his youth but at some point converted to a stern, ascetic worship of Allah, leaving his much younger wife, Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), stuck in a dead marriage. Kazi frowns on the funky, colorful feasts of the local Hindu celebrations, and when his lefty-intellectual younger brother Milon (Soaeb Islam) takes Anu to see them, the father impulsively packs the boy off to a seminary in the city.
There, as in all boarding schools, Anu learns the capriciousness of his peers and the power tactics of adults. He befriends an outcast named Rokon (Russell Farazi) and is befriended by a gentle teacher named Ibrahim (Moin Ahmed), but for the most part, the madrasa is about learning to toe the line. Back in the village, Anu's mother faces a similar quandary as she tries to cajole her husband into allowing her to give Western medicine to their sick daughter (Lameesa R. Reemjheem), and Milon tries to reconcile his activism to his ideals.
"The Clay Bird" unfolds with the serenity of a fable but underneath it draws intelligent, deeply troubled connections between the personal, political, and spiritual. The film poses a single overriding question -- should religious faith be based on fear or on love? -- and shows it to be present everywhere. On one side are the mother, the brother, and Ibrahim the teacher, who softly reminds a friend that it was the selfless Sufis who brought Islam to the poor of Pakistan. On the other side are the father, the headmaster, and the generals who send in their troops, but even the zealots have their reasons. Says a fundamentalist ferryman to Milon, "No true religion, be it Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity, will ever make people blind. True religion opens people's eyes."
With its sumptuous landscapes and moving performances by a cast of nonprofessionals, "The Clay Bird" evokes the classic art-house cinema of Satyajit Ray: It's wise, democratic, and alert to the ways men fool themselves with certainty. It also has some tremendous live performances of devotional folk music, similar to the Pakistani qawwali made famous by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. These musical respites are filmed in town squares and around campfires, with local audiences soaking up the lessons being passed down the years, and they carry the movie's message of fragile tolerance into the sphere of the timeless. Masud has made a rare thing: a movie that presents life as a haunting dialectic.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.
The Clay Bird
Directed by: Tareque Masud
Written by: Tareque and Catherine Masud
Starring: Nurul Islam Bablu, Rokeya Prachy, Jayanto Chattopadhyay
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 98 minutes
In Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, and Arab, with subtitles