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Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Tom Keogh
A grieving mother, Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), is pressed by her husband to take a trip somewhere and restore herself following a terrible loss. She demurs. Ayesha says her home and the immediate surroundings of her Bangladesh village, which include a vigorous river, fields of tall, white-gold grain and a town center with street markets and entertainment, were always "heaven and Earth" to her.
Now, with her children gone one of them, a son, Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu), forcibly enrolled by his zealot father, Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay), in a fundamentalist Islamic school upriver there is a dulling sameness blurring Ayesha's outlook.
Her life will only get worse in Tareque Masud's "The Clay Bird," a moving and provocative film about a collision between unyielding principles and harsh facts. Rumor has it a growing civil war ("The Clay Bird" is set in the 1960s, before Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan) is bringing destruction as soldiers raid villages. Muslims are killing Muslims, crushing a rebellion against a government that has invalidated a democratic election.
Kazi refuses to believe it, just as he refuses to accept that the truly ill neighbors and loved ones who look to him for medicine often need something stronger than religious faith and homeopathy.
Kazi's low-key but exasperating stubbornness affects and even kills a number of people in "The Clay Bird." He stifles creative expression and ornamentation. More significant, his embrace of fundamentalism precludes questioning basic assumptions about family, politics and survival. Kazi's naivete makes him both ridiculous and powerful and, yes, sympathetic. Everyone else lives a life in reaction to his.
Kazi's brother, the sweet secularist Milon (Soaeb Islam), dedicated uncle to the unhappy Anu, yearns to take a stand against government oppression. Ayesha fears for her family's survival given Kazi's blind acceptance of Bangladesh's fate. Anu himself, scarcely persuaded by his school's unforgiving doctrine and harsh treatment of his best friend, the imaginative oddball Rokon (Russell Farazi), sees that his father's dominating convictions will be trumped by brutal reality.
That's a lot of drama for a film with as slow and steady a pulse as "The Clay Bird." Major action is often off-screen, indicated by Milon's radio or suggestive devices (sounds and lights signal army raids). Co-writer and director Masud is more keenly interested in the way ideas collide with other ideas or with wordless, expansive experience.
"The Clay Bird" has a kind of twofold eloquence. Much of it discreetly captures an everyday beauty and resonance in the way people and nature harmonize. (The bowing of windblown reeds behind Anu and Milon as they visit makes one happy to be alive.) But much of the film is brashly rhetorical, too. Conflicting arguments about values, including a teacher's critique of faith-based education, are stimulating vehicles for Masud to open our minds, in a way Kazi's tragically won't.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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