“And then there’s the Ceylan…” I lost count of how many times I heard this during Cannes this year. When one looked at the competition schedule, it was hard to ignore the rough, fearsome beast lurking there right at the end: Ahlat Ağacı (The Wild Pear Tree), a 188-minute film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a tough-sit capper to a fest where the movies already demand your full attention and engagement. The final title in competition can be there for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the filmmakers are racing to finish the movie and need the extra time. But such placement still always feels like a statement of some sort. Ceylan isn’t a director one can ignore: He’s one of the world’s great filmmakers; won the Palme d’Or for his last effort, Winter Sleep (2014); and has never returned from the festival empty-handed. He is also generally not known for brisk pacing or light subject matter, so it seemed perverse and even a little sadistic to schedule his latest, longest work right as the fest was supposed to be winding down.
The Wild Pear Tree is certainly long, but luckily it’s also fairly entertaining. I never thought I’d laugh this much during a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film. It’s not that he’s a stranger to humor: Uzak (Distant), the film that put him on the map internationally in 2003, is basically an odd-couple comedy, and there are sidesplitting moments in the first half of his 2011 magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. But in the first half of The Wild Pear Tree, which follows an aspiring writer after graduation as he shuttles between the city of Çanakkale and his rural hometown of Çan, Ceylan delivers what might be his funniest, most politically poignant work yet. It also happens to be achingly personal.
Ever since his first film, Kasaba (The Town), which was effectively an extended conversation among the members of a rural family, Ceylan has struggled to capture the languid, ruminative quality of a Chekhov story. That may come as some surprise to those who know him largely as a director of stone-faced deadpan and quietly dreamy reveries. But in Winter Sleep, he seemed to renew his efforts at portraying the wandering rhythms of an evening’s discussion. I’m not entirely sure he succeeded there, but in Pear Tree Ceylan presses his fondness for dialogue and debate in new directions, effectively structuring the first half of this expansive film as a series of extended, tense, and often hilarious conversations about literature, popularity, love, modernity — issues central to the role of an artist today, especially in a place like Turkey.
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In the picture’s most bravura sequence, our protagonist, Sinan (Doğu Demirkol), a teaching-school grad and wannabe writer who oscillates between extremes of shy apprehension and dogged impertinence, approaches an acclaimed novelist in a bookstore and engages him in a debate about — among other things — whether stories should have messages, whether the personality of an artist should affect our readings of their work, whether it’s OK to take things other people consider sacred and make them your own. Their conversation starts on an awkward footing to begin with and becomes increasingly confrontational; Sinan the young idealist can’t stop his relentless questioning, and the writer goes from gentle, avuncular befuddlement to outright anger.
Beneath it all, one senses Ceylan himself trying to make sense of his own journey from brash young outsider bursting with ideas to renowned, respected artist weighed down with responsibility. Beneath that, there are thoughts here — conflicted, unresolved ones — about how an artist should engage with his times. That’s a critical question for Ceylan, an internationally beloved, progressive but outwardly apolitical artist working in a politically volatile country. (I’m told by those in the know that this scene with the writer also includes an inside-baseball nod to Ceylan’s own falling-out with his old friend and onetime cinematic partner-in-crime Zeki Demirkubuz, the Turkish director of The Third Page and Innocence.)
Ceylan isn’t trying to resolve any of these debates but rather to have them as openly as possible. Even Sinan’s most ridiculous foils have a point to make. Not long after his argument with the writer, our hero visits the head of a construction firm who, he’s been told, “likes to read.” The man, who has sponsored lots of local cultural projects as a way of greasing the rails for his own business, has a completely different idea than Sinan about what kinds of stories are worth reading about: He remarks on how the region of Çanakkale is home both to the ruins of Troy and the Gallipoli battlefield, and is astonished when Sinan expresses more interest in the inner lives of everyday nobodies than on the heroic acts of famous soldiers and historical figures. This man need not be a metaphor just for the stuffy gatekeepers of official culture in Turkey, but for those who demand more overt, political engagement in general from artists looking for human stories.
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Sinan’s conversations are framed by visits to his family — to his beaten-down gambling-addict dad (Murat Cemcir, in a performance that mixes charm and pathos), a longtime teacher preparing for retirement; and his much put-upon mother. Everything Sinan’s father touches seems to collapse: He has somehow never won anything in all these years of gambling, and owes money left and right. The well he’s trying to dig on their property is clearly doomed to failure. Thus, Sinan initially sees himself as other to both the broader world and his own family; he is embarrassed by what he perceives as his father’s irresponsibility and lack of dignity, his odd, lackadaisical view of the world. Paradoxically mixed in with the young man’s self-defeating gloom is a kind of self-sustaining grandiosity: He is the intellectual who will escape this world, who will transform his troubled experiences into the stuff of art, into the “quirky, auto-fiction meta novel” that he claims to be writing.
Unlike the fairly simple walk-and-talks or two-shots of Sinan’s conversations, these moments back home with family and friends are often filmed as expressive journeys through landscapes — through fog, and sun, and snow, often with captivating, mysterious imagery that combines apocalyptic portent and languid poetry: a sleeping baby covered in ants, an afternoon nap that looks like a crime scene, a loving kiss that turns into a vicious bite. The mystical, earthy pull of these sequences stand in sharp contrast to the basic, streamlined style of the conversation scenes, effectively creating a cinematic dialogue between the discursive and the dreamlike.
And so, within the structure of The Wild Pear Tree lies a direction, if not an answer to some of Sinan’s questions. As it enters its final hour or so, the film leaves the comedy and conversations behind and becomes something quietly devastating. Sinan finds that he has more in common with his father than he realizes, and he’s pulled into the older man’s drama of poverty, pain, and resentment. But somewhere in there is a kind of hope as well, a growing solidarity with one’s roots that may or may not hold at least one answer to the question of just how one goes about creating and living in the world.
Watching The Wild Pear Tree, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ceylan’s first two films, The Town and Clouds of May, which he shot back in his hometown, using his friends and family, particularly his parents, playing variations on themselves. Despite moments of stirring loveliness that marked its director as a name to watch, The Town was a rough first effort; the far more successful Clouds of May was about a filmmaker who came back home to shoot a movie starring his parents that looked very much like The Town. (It was clear that Ceylan had studied Kiarostami’s metafictional Koker Trilogy.)
These efforts were warm, ambling, wry little looks at small-town life, but it now occurs to me that we rarely got a sense from them of what Ceylan thought of his parents, or what they thought of him. They acted for his cameras, often revealing a certain bemused indifference to matters of cinema or realism or continuity. The Wild Pear Tree feels like a necessary third chapter to those earlier works, or maybe even an informal prequel, a philosophical journey through the mind of an aspiring artist trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs. The closing credits, played out over the sound of that aforementioned, eternally useless well being dug, suggests that the work, for Ceylan, still goes on.
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