"The Clay Bird" arrives like a postcard from a time warp, one that, while telling the story of the recent past, bears inescapable tidings from the future.
A first-time feature from the husband-and-wife team of Tareque and Catherine Masud, "The Clay Bird" claims to be the first feature film ever made in Bangladesh. As such, it offers a rare glimpse of a country that has for the most part been defined in Western eyes by poverty and natural disaster. The filmmakers don't evade those realities, of course, but they place them in the context of their country's rich and complicated history.
In the late 1960s, Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu) is living with his parents and younger sister in a tiny village in East Pakistan (which will soon become Bangladesh). Anu's father, Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay), is a homeopathic healer and a man of cosmopolitan upbringing, but in recent years he's become an increasingly fundamentalist Muslim, even going so far as to send Anu to a madrasah, or Muslim seminary. This comes as something of a culture shock to Anu, who has a more ecumenical approach to the religious traditions of his region -- he's especially fond of the vibrant Hindu festivals that take place near his home.
Once in school, Anu is exposed to his father's severe brand of Islam, as well as to more moderate teachings at the hand of a liberal teacher, who debates another instructor on whether Islam is best spread through knowledge and practice, or by the sword. (The scholarly conversation is beautifully recapitulated by two Muslim troubadours who reappear throughout the film like a Greek chorus.)
Meanwhile, another debate is roiling the streets of East Pakistan, as students, intellectuals and activists increasingly call for the region's independence. Anu's Marxist uncle Milon is a leader in this movement, and while the young boy's teachers argue the finer points of Islamic theology, Milon and his friends discuss whether a truly indigenous liberation movement can be based on ideas imported from Germany. The arguments seem all the more academic -- yet also fraught with potentially devastating real-life consequences -- when Anu's spirited little sister dies, as much from the sexism of orthodox Islam as from her chronic illness. (Although Anu's mother chafes under her husband's strictures, by the time she finds the strength to resist him it is far too late in the game -- one of the movie's most sobering cautionary messages.)
"The Clay Bird" culminates in the war that preceded the establishment of the state of Bangladesh in 1971. By then the political and religious forces that will go on to shape both Bangladesh and Pakistan have, in light of ensuing events, taken on a sense of terrible inexorability. The unforgiving ethos of the madrasah is particularly distressing to witness, especially when it takes the form of cruelty against Anu's best friend, an imaginative and independent little boy named Rokon (Russell Farazi).
Still, the Masuds have taken care not to demonize any particular religion or political movement. Instead, they have made the wise choice to focus on the simple story of one boy against a backdrop that couldn't be less simple.
What's most valuable about "The Clay Bird" isn't its sociological observations, although they are admittedly fascinating. The power of this quiet little film lies in the lyricism of its images of life on Bangladesh's waterways and in its towns (some scenes will remind viewers of Jean Renoir's 1951 classic "The River"), and in the naturalistic performances from its cast of mostly nonprofessional actors. These are the most indelible and poetic elements of "The Clay Bird," and they're sure to haunt audiences long after the film's historical points have been taken to heart.
The Clay Bird (94 minutes, in Bengali with subtitles, at Landmark E Street) is not rated. It contains some violence.