With “Winter Sleep,” Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan signaled a shift in style, increasing the importance of extended dialogues to the visually rich chamber pieces he plays out on grand stages. “The Wild Pear Tree” goes a step further, building elaborate rhetorical set pieces of such density that digesting them in all their intricacies at one sitting is practically impossible. Even more than in his previous film, Ceylan and his fellow scriptwriters (wife Ebru Ceylan along with Akın Aksu, also acting) develop astonishingly complex spoken recitatives that weave philosophy, religious tradition, and ethics together into a mesmerizing verbal fugue. For his fans, the three hours won’t feel like an indulgence, but those less sympathetic to the shared primacy of verbiage and imagery will likely feel tested. The achievement is masterful, though its diffusion will be limited.
Thematically “The Wild Pear Tree” fits perfectly into the director’s melancholy expanse of male disaffection, though his main character is younger than many of his protagonists, full of youth’s insolence as he approaches a crossroads he’s no better equipped to negotiate than his predecessors. For English-speaking viewers, there are whiffs of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller in the way the film composes an opposition between father and son, perfectly encapsulated by a line Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol) says about his father Idris (Murat Cemcir): “He’s in permanent revolt against the absurdities of life.”
It’s a more generous statement than much of what Sinan thinks about his dad, a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy whose comradely charms cover a severe gambling addiction. At the start, Sinan returns home from college in the coastal city of Çanakkale and is greeted by mother Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar) and sister Yasemin (Asena Keskinci) with less warmth than they’d give the television shows they’re constantly watching. Idris is considerably more welcoming, roping him in to help dig a well on his grandfather’s property in the country. Like many of Idris’ dreams, the well will prove barren, a handy symbol of a fruitless streak in his life, though the script is far too clever to reduce the metaphor to just one dimension.
Sinan plans to be a school teacher like his father, though first he has to sit for the exam and before then, he’s wanting to get an experimental novel published. Those who’ve criticized Ceylan for a perceived lack of political engagement should closely read the scenes between Sinan and Mayor Adnan Yılmaz (Kadir Çermik), who claims he can only defray the printing costs if the book celebrates the town, as well as those between Sinan and small-time industrialist Ilhami (Kubilay Tunçer), who belittles a university degree: “Education is great, but this is Turkey.” As if that’s not clear enough, Sinan calls a former classmate who graduated with a literature degree and is now a riot policeman joking about beating up a short man at a demonstration.
Back in Çanakkale, Sinan meets with established local author Süleyman (Serkan Keskin) for what turns into an elaborate verbal sparring match in which the cocky younger man’s passive-aggressive attitude is countered by the writer’s more mature stance. Cloaked in juvenile arrogance, Sinan takes a dismissive attitude towards those who modify the cherished outlook of their youth, while an ultimately exasperated Süleyman counters by speaking of the “callow excesses of a young heart.”
This meaty conversation finds an even more involved counterpart later when Sinan walks through some fields with a couple of imams, Veysel (Aksu) and Nazmi (Öner Erkan) ostensibly discussing Koranic scripture yet really furthering the film’s exploration of generational attitudes. In this case, the conclusions reached from the dialogue between Sinan and Süleyman are flipped, as Nazmi, representing a younger, more open-minded approach, argues for an expansive consideration of the Prophet’s words, whereas the more established, condescending Veysel champions a limited point of view as the conversation shifts into the question of free will. As if the sequence isn’t dense enough, Ceylan uses almost exclusively mid-and-long shots, or films them from behind, making it difficult to see who’s talking.
What’s this got to do with the main subject of a father and son? Everything, since more than anything, “The Wild Pear Tree” is about the youthful dismissal of compromise that sits in judgment on older generations who’ve made peace with their life choices (though as noted in the interchange between the imams, age can also impose hidebound philosophies). Though Sinan is the main character, Idris is the flawed hero: Numbing his evaporated ambitions with a gambling addiction, Idris is a smooth-talking fatalist who accepts the curtailed outlook life now offers. Less crushed by failure than his family, his dreams have become more modest, and in the end, his affection will be the one constant for Sinan.
As is often true in Ceylan’s films, women play problematic roles. Asuman is largely detached from Sinan’s life, and the inscription he writes to her in his book “all thanks to you and you alone,” feels cruel since he’s clearly disingenuous. Though exasperated by Idris’ spectacular lack of responsibility, Asuman still loves her husband, something Sinan, at this stage, has difficulty understanding. The only other female character of any import is Sinan’s former classmate Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), who he meets by chance in a field. Outwardly haughty with a challenging gaze, she resents any notion that she’s limited herself by staying at home, but then disproves this attitude when she removes her headscarf and, vampire like, bites him on the lip. “When did my heart last say anything?” she rhetorically asks as she’s called back to her family farm and the circumscribed life therein.
Ceylan’s usual cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki shot using a Red Weapon 6 K, which gloriously reproduces the contrasting hues of town and countryside, from the Çanakkale waterfront, recalling in small-scale form the port scenes in “Distant,” to sylvan landscapes and that wild pear tree standing solitary, misshapen, yet firmly rooted to the ground. Çanakkale of course is the likely location of Troy and the site of the Gallipoli Campaign, but it’s also the director’s birthplace, making it ripe with multiple associations. Always sensitive to music’s quiet pull, he repeatedly uses Leopold Stokowski’s performance of Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, introducing the same passages without allowing them to come to their final resolution.
Cannes Film Review: ‘The Wild Pear Tree’
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2017. Running time: 188 MIN. (Original title: “Ahlat Ağacı”)
Production: (Turkey-France-Germany-Bulgaria-Macedonia-Bosnia-Herzegovina-Sweden) A Zeyno Film, Memento Films Prod., Detail Film, RFF International, Sisters and Brother Mitevski, 2006 Produkcija Sarajevo, Film i Väst, Chimney Pot, ARTE France Cinéma, Imaj, Türkiye Radyo Televizyon Kurumu (TRT), Doha Film Institute, Nu-Look Yapım, Kale Grubu production, in association with ARTE France. (International sales: Memento Films, Paris.) Producer: Zeynep Özbatur Atakan. Co-producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Fabian Gasmia, Stefan Kitanov, Labina Mitevska, Mirsad Purivatra, Jon Mankell, Anthony Muir, Thomas Eskilsson.
Crew: Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Screenplay: Akın Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Camera (color, widescreen): Gökhan Tiryaki. Editor: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Aydin Doğu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yıldırımlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, Serkan Keskin, Tamer Levent, Akin Aksu, Öner Erkan, Ahmet Rıfat Şungar, Kubilay Tunçer, Kadir Çermik, Özay Fecht, Ercüment Balakoğlu, Asena Keskinci.