The Soul of Asia segment of the International Film Festival at Goa showcased some deeply reflective films.

Amid the glitter of global cinema at the International Film Festival India at Goa was a reflective segment called Soul of Asia. As an agnostic, I approached this collection with some trepidation, but encountered some of the best films in the festival. Curated thoughtfully by filmmaker Meera Dewan, this series interrogated rather than propagated faith, raising many ethical and existential — and sometimes political — questions.

The series opened with Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone, which builds on a Persian Sufi legend: share your secrets and pain with this stone, and one day it will explode and set you free from guilt and suffering. Set in war-torn Afghanistan, the film narrates the riveting story of a young woman desperately tending to a comatose husband with a bullet lodged in his neck and finding food for her two little daughters, amid daily bomb explosions, gun attacks and raids by soldiers. She talks constantly to her comatose husband whom she hides from marauding soldiers behind a curtain, and he becomes her Patience Stone. She speaks to him about her childhood and her uncaring father, and of her loveless marriage to him, his indifference and thoughtless absences, piecing together a lacerating picture of the claustrophobia and loneliness of her patriarchal, misogynist world. Two soldiers raid their house, and the younger returns believing she is a whore. In time, she finds unexpected love with the young man, himself a tormented orphan abused by older soldiers. In her husband’s violent death at the end, her Patience Stone explodes, and as a result perhaps she will find liberation.

Equally contemplative is the Philippine film Apparition, directed by Vincent Sandoval. The Philippines of this film is also in violent conflict, with the bloody suppression of dissent by Marcos’s forces in 1971, culminating in imposition of martial law in the darkest chapter of contemporary Philippine history. But Sandoval’s drama is located within the apparent calm of a cloistered Catholic convent in a remote forest, in which nuns have renounced the world for a life of prayer.

However, his narrative underlines the impossibility of such isolation especially in troubled times; the outside world determinedly penetrates the fragile quiet of their world, with news brought in by family that the brother of one of the nuns is arrested and finally killed by soldiers of the ruling establishment. Its calm shatters completely with the gang-rape and pregnancy of a young nun. Sandoval, who also writes the script, works his tale at many levels: there is political commentary on culpable silences in the face of injustice; there are suggestions of stirrings of liberation theology among younger nuns (who years later were on the streets protesting Marcos’s regime); and it also probes universal ethical dilemmas — of faith, obedience, renunciation, duty, guilt and redemption. In its telling, this chronicle is subversive but always gentle and compassionate: it does not point fingers but urges reflection both on withdrawal from the world, and political and ethical engagement with oppression and suffering.

An arresting docu-feature, Pan Nalin’s Faith Connections is a stunning visual narration of the largest gathering of human beings in the world, the epic Kumbh Mela at Sangam. Amid more conventional images of teeming throngs of worshippers, the crowed river and naked sadhus, it is a chronicle of great heart and acute observation, which seeks out unexpected stories amid the crowds. A sadhu given to incredible yogic postures and a weakness for cannabis adopts an abandoned baby and raises him most tenderly; a runaway boy who endears himself to sadhus, the police and roadside traders alike with his cheeky precocious make-belief machismo; a family is in desperate search for a lost little child and many others. Nalin’s film is not about the anonymous crush of people, but the million individual stories shrouded within these.

Agnostic Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in The Gardener seeks enquiry into a gentle faith system that has never in its history turned violent, and whose followers are widely persecuted in his home country, Iran — the Baha’is. Visually arresting, the camera follows Baha’i volunteers as they tend a beautiful garden at the founding site of the faith, and they speak of what draws them into this faith, its respect for all sacred belief systems, its tolerance and service.

The dialectics between filmmaker Mohsen and his son Maysam punctuate the film with acute reflections on questions of religion, faith and tolerance.

Maysam speaks to his father about how all religions teach love and humanism but become vehicles for hate and violence. His father responds: just because you get burned by fire, you do not close down your oil-fields. The film is both lyrical and courageous: even as it captures birdsong, flowers and gentle faith-seekers, it travels also to Israel, for which the exiled father and son could be imprisoned for five years if they were to return to Iran.

The grammar and discourse of this unusual film — driven by a search for peace and understanding — is simultaneously rational, intelligent, poetic, and above all intensely civilised.