It’s always rewarding to begin moviegoing at a sizable event like the Toronto International Film Festival by moving well off the beaten path. Your sense of adventure is still intact, your expectations have yet to be raised or lowered, and your overall energy level doesn’t need any assistance. That’s why a film like Golam Rabbany Biplob’s Beyond the Circle benefits from early scheduling; this Bangladeshi work—the only in the fest this year and likely the only many Westerners will get to see in any context this year—is hardly difficult, but it does offer a simplistically constructed and reasoned melodrama that might turn off viewers no longer accustomed to such broad strokes painted in such ideological black and white. Judging by mass press-screening walk-outs, the cultural disconnect is perhaps too large for this film to get an appreciative audience halfway across the world. Yet its nonviability as a product in the West is what makes it the sort of festival-going experience that should be valued: it may not be particularly good, but the film will give its viewers a brief glimpse of a national cinema that for most has been simply a mystery.
Bangladesh does indeed have a film industry, approximately churning out a relatively modest (by the standards of its movie-behemoth neighbor, India) eighty films a year. Yet Biplob’s example still appears as though the result of homegrown artistry. A rigidly moralistic portrait of big-city corruption on a sweet-souled country innocent, Beyond the Circle has what might be called a “straightforward aesthetic,” or if we’re feeling less charitable, a primitive approach to filmmaking, from its dully artless camera setups to its thuddlingly literal musical cues to its sound synchronization mistakes and overly emphatic ADR work; often the film looks and sounds as if it were some sort of corporate training video. Yet Circle is not without its charms in its telling of the Capra-esque tale of a simple village flautist, Haripada, who is pressured by the assistant of a wealthy “big shot” in the distant capital of Dhaka to come to the city to, it seems at first, only entertain his boss with some tunes and perhaps become an inspirational music star, representing traditional values.
Much disillusioning ensues, some of it deriving from the discovery of the racism of the big bad city, often directed toward Haripada’s son, who has accompanied him: a Muslim adopted by a Hindu. The film hits every expected beat, from fish-out-of-water restaurant hijinks to the basic revelation that moving up equals selling out. There’s even a late-film nightmare sequence in which a terrified Haripada is attacked by intensely gelled visions of evil city billboards and cartoon lightning that might have seemed old-fashioned to Western audiences even in 1927. Yet there’s still something immensely appealing and, when the camera is trained on the gorgeous lily pads and vast skies of Bangladesh’s muddy countryside, visually lyrical about this unpretentious city-vs.-country tale. And for most moviegoers, it can only be seen in Toronto. —Michael Koresky