The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci)
Turkey (2018) Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
It’s funny how young people always think they know it all, especially the precocious ones who read a few highbrow books and suddenly believe their take on the world is the only “right” one and everyone else is an ignoramus living in the past. This arrogance invites some juicy schadenfreude for us and a rude awakening for them.
Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) returns to his rural village near the port of Çanakkale after studying in the city and earning his diploma but has no job to show for it. Having written a book he needs money for to get it published and is refused help from the local council, Sinan needs a job but is unsure if he wants to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of his father Idris (Murat Cemcir), or find some other line of work.
But Sinan has returned with a slight chip on his shoulder having been far away from his bumpkin roots which he is unable or rather tactless enough not to keep to himself. But as Sanin tries to raise the funds for his book, he instead discovers that his father’s gambling debts constantly become an issue for him, driving Sanin further into his own despair.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a favourite with cineastes and the pseuds on IMDb for his fraught family dramas that stroll along at a deliberately glacial pace. His last film, the bum-numbing Winter’s Sleep (at 196 minutes long) was considered his biggest triumph thus far, is followed up with this comparatively sprightly 188-minute outing continuing Ceylan’s run of verbose explorations of family flaws.
One aspect Ceylan has toned down tremendously in The Wild Pear Tree is the time wasting prolonged shots of scenery and quotidian activities that have blighted his prior films. That isn’t to say Ceylan has abandoned his trademark picturesque depiction of his native Turkey, rather he has finally figured out that less is more and doesn’t let the camera linger for unnecessarily protracted lengths of time for no discernible reason.
Whilst this means more time for the story, which is a boon, it also means more time for the in depth discussions at every turn, ranging from heated disputes over Idris’ financial duplicity to tense clashes involving Sinan’s philosophical ideology and the reality checks he receives from the older and wiser people in the village and others he encounters whom he refuses to listen to despite seeking their counsel.
That doesn’t mean this film needs to be in excess of three hours though – most films usually don’t – and as opined above, Ceylan tends to inject a lot of padding in his works, even the shorter ones (running 100 minutes or so). Like many writers, Ceylan and his wife/co-writer Ebru use their characters to get things off their chest or discuss pertinent matters – yet it is hard to ascertain if Sinan is representing Ceylan’s argumentative side or if the wiser elders have his voice.
Had Ceylan stuck to the central and more compelling story of Idris’ gambling problems and the hurt it is causing his family, not only would the film be a good 70 plus minutes shorter but would feel less confrontational in its tone. But, we suspect this is exactly what Ceylan is aiming for in having Sinan be the contrarian upstart with a comeback for everything regardless of the subject or if he is right or not.
Lasting around twenty minutes or so is a scene where Sinan meets up with a couple of his old friends who has stayed in the village, showing no signs of the same ambition to break free like he has. Beginning with the usual catch up platitudes, this somehow evolves into an in-depth discussion on the work ethic of the local builders, the meaning of the Quran and finally the merits of religion in general becoming a fad for some.
Normally, such discussion would involve a devout follower or a member of the clergy to state the case for religion but in this instance, it is simply three friends chewing the fat. This way, Ceylan removes the pretence that he is supporting one view over the other or trying to demonise the pro opinion against a dissenting voice, providing a fascinating scenario.
After exchange in which Sinan really pushes his luck is with celebrated author Süleyman (Serkan Keskin), whom he spies in a bookshop and seeks his advice – except Sanin seems more intent on questioning Süleyman’s philosophy on writing, literature and everything else, like he knows it all. Needless to say, both Süleyman and the audience want to give Sinan a good slap after this.
Yet the overriding question is whether Sinan is the nominal antagonist here or Idris? Even wife Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar) can’t hide her anger and disappointment in Idris, yet she vents it to her son and not her husband. Idris insists any evidence implicating him is purely circumstantial or just their imagination but his enigmatic deflecting of these accusations only clouds the truth.
Handsomely photographed as ever, Ceylan uses every location, backdrop, and setting as part of the cast whether to build atmosphere or provide a visual aid to contextualise the mood of the moment. With shots no longer lingering beyond their usefulness it is easier to appreciate the wonder of the visuals, from Ceylan’s favoured snowy landscapes to some emotive foggy snapshots.
The cast makes their characters believable, for better or worse, and deserve kudos for remembering the lengthy discourses Mr. and Mrs. Ceylan have written for them, but outside of Sinan their developments as people is slightly hampered with the extensive chat dominating over the story.
Mileage will vary if his prolix discussion heavy style is indulgence or high art but if you are a fan of Ceylan The Wild Pear Tree is everything you’ve come to expect from the man in what is arguably his most accessible film to date, especially when to sticks to the main story.