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Review: "The Wild Pear Tree" Is Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Beguiling Portrait of Life in Modern Turkey

The Turkish master earns every minute of his 188-minute drama of a young writer returning, ambitious and disgruntled, to his home town.
Demi Kampakis
The Wild Pear Tree
Though the 188-minute running time for The Wild Pear Tree, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film following his 2014 Palme d’Or win for Winter’s Sleep, may seem daunting, those patient or curious enough to see it will have their good faith pay off in emotional spades, for this is a film whose piercing potency slowly creeps up on you, burrows into your psyche, and lingers long after the film’s final frame.  All of which is to say, this film earns every one of those 188 minutes.  As with his prior features, including Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), The Wild Pear Tree demonstrates Ceylan’s personal affection for, and preoccupations with, Russian literature, and the film’s rhythms, themes, and observations make both implicit and explicit references to Chekov, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky.  Reasonable, though cursory, comparisons could also be made to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate—another film that features a wayward college grad searching for purpose—and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, though Waking Life also comes to mind, for it too is narratively constructed around self-contained encounters that become dense conversational set-pieces.   
Sinan (a stubbly, slack jawed and heavy-lidded Dogu Dermikol), our hero, has just graduated from college, and we first meet him upon his return to his hometown of Çanakkale, where he occasionally shuttles back and forth to his grandparents’ neighboring rural village of Çan.  An aspiring writer who has just completed his “auto-fiction meta-novel,” Sinan finds himself at a crossroads regarding his future, and given his attitude towards small town life being stiflingly regressive and close-minded—essentially a death knell for artistic ambition—the prospect of revisiting his old stomping grounds further exacerbates his career anxieties, to say nothing of his urbane sense of superiority over these rural "simpletons."  Upon returning home, we quickly become acquainted with members of Sinan’s immediate and extended family—most notably, his waggish yet slippery father Idris (Murat Cemcir in a mesmerizing and deeply stirring role), a schoolteacher whose gambling addiction has besmirched his reputation and thrown his home life into financial peril.  Unlike his charming and lackadaisical father, Sinan is a brooding lad who feels perpetually misunderstood, and his dour disposition reflects his youthful frustrations, condescending contempt for rural stagnancy, and angsty sense of artistic entitlement. 
Despite wanting to “drop an atomic bomb on this place,” Sinan channels his frustration by using his time back home as an opportunity to secure funding to get his book published.  As he meets with local politicians and financiers, he also runs into old acquaintances, former flames, clerics, and in one standout sequence, a successful local author, along the way.  These various encounters, and the loquacious conversations they invite, provide fertile ground for erudite ruminations on life in modern Turkey and an artist’s place in it—and these dizzying, discursive reflections on religion, technology, morality, free will, marriage, self-reflection, artistic agency, the nature of reality, and the value of culture and higher education in contemporary Turkish society—transform Sinan’s professional pursuit into a kind of personal spiritual odyssey towards literary enlightenment.  These exchanges serve as windows into Sinan’s worldview, and Ceylan allows his character’s search for artistic meaning, truth, purpose and inspiration to double as a personal existential opus, in which he uses garrulous dialogue to interrogate the absurdity of life, and probe its Big Questions. 
Sinan’s path towards artistic fulfillment is complicated by his awareness that, with few exceptions, the only viable prospects for writers and creatives—especially those removed from a metropolis like Istanbul—are to work irrelevant jobs, become a teacher, or most lucratively, join the police force, as an old buddy of Sinan has (which we come to learn through a phone conversation, in perhaps the film’s most politically direct critique).  With Sinan in career limbo, the precarity of his circumstances lend the film its wistful, restless melancholy—and also offers some prescient commentary on youth unemployment in Europe, and the secondary value placed on culture, education, and the arts in Turkey today.
Yet despite the cards being stacked against him, and the chances of making a living out of writing seeming dimmer by the day, Sinan nonetheless perseveres with dogged conviction.  Part of this conviction stems from his staunch determination to never follow in the footsteps of his father; a former writer himself who had to forsake his romantic ambitions when the harsh realities of life set in.  Perhaps this is why Sinan is particularly salty around his dad; throughout the majority of the film, their strained interactions, and the younger’s exasperation, suggest years of Sinan’s resentment towards his dad’s irresponsible gambling impulses and the implications they've had for the family—but also a deeply internalized fear that this same failed fate awaits him.   
Other than a couple year time jump in the film’s final act, the entirety of The Wild Pear Tree unfolds over the course of the first several days immediately following Sinan’s return, as he settles back into post-university life.  This temporal approach itself speaks to the passage of time, a motif the film periodically revisits by way of lamentation and weary acknowledgement—yet it also provides breathing room for the film’s languid pacing that heightens its meditative acuity.  In one poignant rendezvous, Sinan runs into Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü, whose limited presence in the film lends her character a mythical, wood nymph vibe), a gorgeous young woman who we surmise to be a former love interest.  Judging by Sinan’s surprised reaction to Hatice’s headscarf and manual walnut-harvesting job, we gather that she is a more or less modern young woman trapped in traditionalist circumstances, one in which matrimony, the obvious path, renders higher education for women unnecessary.  Sensing judgment from this city slicker, Hatice is at first defensive of her life choices—arguing the pragmatic merits of not going to college—but it only takes a clandestine cigarette break behind a tree in the middle of a field for her façade to quickly, feebly crumble.  The wanderlust with which she ponders life’s elusive beauties and sense of fulfillment take on a heartbreaking dimension with the knowledge that she is to be married off to a jeweler; an arrangement that, although likely facilitated by her parents, provides the only foreseeable path to a materialistically comfortable life—or, as she calls it, a “chamber of gold.”  Ceylan’s gift for subtle, complex observational detail is on full display when the two kiss, for the surprising erotic energy of Hatice biting Sinan’s lips masterfully communicates the intensity of her burning desire for something to pierce her placid existence.  Her headscarf also plays a key role in one of the film’s most rapturous and striking sequences; removing it, her long locks breezily flow in tandem with the rustling leaves, and time itself seems to stand still as Ceylan subtly augments nature’s aural ambiance.  For a moment, his camera—and by extension, us viewers—are enveloped in its rhythmic, susurrus flow, with the landscape’s images and sounds coming to the fore as the branches continue to sway.  I’d be hard pressed to think of another cinematic moment in recent memory that so elegantly and sensitively evokes the feeling of truly being in the moment, where for a few precious, fleeting seconds, the boundary between man and nature evaporates.  
While The Wild Pear Tree wrestles with many weighty issues, it isn’t without a sense of humor, and much of it is delivered by way of Idris’ penchant for pranks and childlike gaiety.  Aside from this patriarch’s cheekiness, there’s a mordant sense of dry humor that undergirds two particular conversational vignettes Sinan has with a local businessman and the aforementioned author, respectively.  In the former, Sinan meets with the owner of a small construction company, who he’s been told is an avid reader, and known for subsidizing the projects of local writers.  It isn’t until Sinan pitches his book, however, that he learns the true nature of the man’s generosity.  Rather than being a benefactor interested in preserving the town’s cultural arts, his past contributions were merely part of a transactional arrangement with the mayor in exchange for contracts.  The man even goes so far as to completely deride the value of a higher education, noting that “this is Turkey,” where common sense and adaptability alone will get you far in life—not the abstract posturing and hermetic naiveté of intellectual snobs.  While not as political, the latter encounter with the author provides the most extensive window into Sinan’s attempts to wrestle with his artistic identity, and the issues of credibility and ethics that arise in his profession.  Through the rapid-fire, challenging dialogue of this nearly 20-minute sequence, Ceylan sharply elucidates the ideological tensions that exist between different Turkish generations.  Growing increasingly impatient with Sinan’s not-so-subtle jabs and quixotic hubris, the local author challenges our protagonist’s romantic sensibilities through the grounded, experienced, sage eyes of a seasoned veteran.
An elegiac, emotionally textured reverie steeped in verbiage and imagery, The Wild Pear Tree serves as an introspective, bucolic tableau of the many tensions permeating Turkey today, tensions that are perfectly distilled in Sinan’s relationship with his dad: generational, familial, spiritual and cultural.  Granted, Ceylan isn’t the first Turkish filmmaker to interrogate this—Deniz Gamze Erguven’s 2015 Cesar winner Mustang tragically captured the country’s cultural chasm between urban progressivism and rural conservatism—but this film stands out for the intimate, meandering yet devastating, gusto with which these divides are examined.  There’s a sublime sadness that permeates the entire film, and as Sinan continues to grapple with the people and places that shaped him into the person he is today, the central metaphor at the heart of the film—that titular, solitary, oft overlooked, misshapen and misunderstood wild pear tree—takes on both a figurative and literal dimension.  Returning to his roots ultimately humbles Sinan to the many similarities he shares with his dad—two kindred souls who refuse to let cynicism completely extinguish their idealistic spirit in life—and this revelation quietly culminates in a final scene that although transcendental in its heartbreaking poignancy, offers a measure of hope that befits an ineffable, elusive film so rich in visual metaphors: when at the bottom of a well, one has no choice but to keep chipping away, hoping that something beautiful will eventually break through.


ReviewsNuri Bilge Ceylan

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