Given the political climate in Bangladesh nowadays, Tanvir Mokammel’s quietly damning story of the effects of a fake holy man’s religious intolerance on a backwoods Bengali village probably couldn’t have been made if it wasn’t based on a famous 1948 novel. A magnificent storyteller, writer-director Mokammel builds his tale with consummate skill, his seemingly leisurely pace a marvel of economy, his largely silent exposition managing both crystal clarity and subtle irony. A triumph of austerity, cosmic humor and surprisingly sharp social criticism, this Islamic “Elmer Gantry” should flourish on the fest rounds and, with critical nurturing and proper handling, transplant well to an urban arthouse setting.
One day a stranger shows up and starts praying in the fields as peasants gather, wondering who he is. He comes upon an abandoned grave and exclaims in horror over the sinful neglect of the resting place of a famous holy man whom no one, including the village headman, ever heard of.
Soon a shrine is erected around the grave and villagers leave money and livestock. Over the years, the shrine becomes the lodestone of civic life and the stranger, Majid (Raisul Islam Asad), the arbiter of the villagers’ morality. When he’s not chasing beggars, condemning traditional “pagan” practices, chastising his wives, dispensing summary justice with the menfolk or teaching by rote in his Islamic school while deep-sixing plans for a secular one, Majid wiles away the hours smoking his hookah or having his legs massaged by his first wife amid her endless round of chores.
Mokammel never bluntly telegraphs the plot. The passage of time is marked by small changes in familiar locales, so that the faux holy man’s compound, throughout the course of the picture, steadily boasts a few more goats, a fancier dwelling, a new wife.
Similarly, Mokammel never overtly “reveals” that the shrine is a hoax, but an early scene artfully compresses the whole situation: Majid finds a man sitting in the shrine passing a fan over the grave. The man asks quietly, “Aren’t you afraid of God?” Majid empties out the collection box, pockets his booty and tosses a coin to the “pilgrim” who, having gotten his payoff, turns around and fans Majid, from that moment on appearing as Majid’s inseparable right-hand henchman.
Fittingly, patriarchal Majid’s downfall stems from unexpected “woman trouble.” Unlike the sturdy loving peasant woman whose rolling hips first led him to marriage, his new, much younger wife is not in awe of her holy hubby. When she sees Majid pass off a woman’s grief with facile platitudes while greedily scrabbling to pick up the coins she tosses to him, he becomes monstrous in her eyes, and a flood is mystically unleashed that sweeps away all he has built.
Mokammel ends with anin media res freeze-frame, which is as understated and emotionally powerful as the film overall.
Tech credits are superb, particularly Mahaden Shi’s picture-perfect score and Anwar Hossain’s serenely arresting lensing.