Ceylan: Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree) (2018)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film marks a bit of a shift away from the glacial sublimity of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Winter Sleep. While the scale of his ambition still remains, The Wild Pear Tree is more long cinema than slow cinema – long in the same way that a nineteenth-century realist epic is long, since this is one of his most novelistic achievements to date. One of his most urban and comic films, too, since while it may come to a fairly harrowing conclusion, and feature no small share of heartbreak, The Wild Pear Tree is suffused with a sense of the absurd limits to human and political aspiration that often borders on a kind of existential comedy. At its heart is Sinan, played by Aydin Dogu Demirkol, a young Turkish man who returns to his hometown of Canakkale after completing a degree in English literature. His long-term goal is to publish a manuscript he has written entitled “The Wild Pear Tree,” but he also has more pressing things to think about, including the prospect of passing his primary teaching qualification, as well as where he might he assigned to teach in Turkey, along with the fractious family dynamic that seems even more pronounced upon his return. His father Idris, played by Murat Cemcir, is also a school teacher, but spends most of his time gambling and concocting wild schemes, most notably building a well which he insists will eventually draw water, and over time these have bankrupted the family, sending his mother Asuman, played by Benn Yildirimlar, into a sluggish depression, and ensuring that his sister barely figures in the script in any real way.
For the most part, however, both those immediate and long-term concerns are dispersed into a peripatetic, wandering atmosphere, as Sinan finds himself tracing wider and more oblique trajectories around his home town as the days wind down to his teaching exam. In the process, Ceylan paints a portrait of a fairly dissonant character, since while he might pride himself on having attained a certain amount of liberalism during his studies, Sinan is just as content to joke with a friend on the phone about police brutality, or to blithely insult one of his childhood sweethearts for having become a feminist. That same ambivalence extends to the town itself, since while Sinan may sometimes degrade it in the most excoriating terms, Canakkale also forms the subject matter of his book, whose parameters and focus become more diffuse and amorphous as he tries to secure funding from one town figure after another. While it’s clear that the book is not designed to operate as a work of tourism, or to venerate the most iconic parts of the town’s geography or history, it’s hard to know exactly what it is designed to do, or even what form it takes, since Sinan seems to find a new way to describe it with each new person he talks to, eventually framing it as a “quirky auto-fiction meta-novel…free of faith, ideology or agenadas” to the most prominent novelist from the local area, “one of those novels that you just can’t describe in a sentence or two.”
As that might suggest, Sinan has a fair amount of attitude, but his attitude never stays in one place for very long, as he uses his time back in Canakkale to try to calibrate just how much he can and should be entitled to expect from his elders, as well as the point at which reasonable entitlement segues into a more noxious form of entitlement. To that end, Ceylan structures the film in quite a novelistic way, intercutting Sinan’s encounters with his family with a series of sustained, one-off conversations with characters we typically only see once. Most of these are figures of male authority, from a factory owner to the town mayor to a local imam to a famous novelist, and their conversations with Sinan typically last upwards of twenty minutes, providing Ceylan with a terrific canvas to demonstrate just how subtly he can module long segments of dialogue, forcing you to put your initial reservations about Sinan on hold as he feels out his interlocuturs in one ingenuous way after another. While he’s never exactly respectful, he’s never exactly disrespectful either, which is in some ways more irreverent than direct disrespect or opposition would be, building a cumulative sense of frustration with the older generation that never quite eventuates into any kind of cathartic confrontation. Similarly, for all his attitude, Sinan never quite lets himself, or his own generation, off the hook either, as the film’s energies gradually converge on the ease with which Turkish male youth accept the traditionalist complacency of their forebears, a position that culminates with the longest conversation of the film, in which a young and unscrupulous imam lectures Sinan on the significance of adhering to orthodox perspectives.
Given the length and scope of these conversations, it’s inevitable that their restless rage balloons out into the ceaseless wandering that suffuses the film, much of which takes place on the rolling foothills above the town, as Ceylan loops around from periphery to periphery but never quite provides us with a stable, orienting or properly panoramic vantage point. As a result, these long, wandering sequences fuel the frustration as much as they satiate it, especially as they accelerate, or when they abruptly shift direction, at which point the inherent glitchiness of Ceylan’s digital camera becomes evident, jerking us unceremoniously out of the meditative overtones of his mise-en-scenes. Beyond a certain point, it feels as if the process of talking about his writing is what constitutes Sinan’s writing, or that this part of the process is more important than the actual book, as he confronts one figure after another with an incitement to discourse that they can never quite fulfil. By definition, these incitements tend to be provocative but they never feel like empty provocation so much as Sinan trying to discern just how these authority figures out of the continuous prevarication that seems to be their stock in trade. That prevarication is one of the key reasons why The Wild Pear Tree is as long as it is, stretching out the conversations in much the same way as the bureaucratic rigmaroles of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia distended the scenes there, as Sinan tries to chart a direct line in a sea of conversational circumambulation, or at least to trace out an even more circuitous trajectory than those of the figures he’s conversing with.
Try as he might, however, Sinan can never quite elude or thwart that circumloctutory ambience, with the result that the film is increasing oppressed by a cumulative and visceral frustration at male figures not being held accountable for their words – a frustration that’s all the more pronounced in that Sinan doesn’t have any ready answers at his disposal either, and frequently seems to be implicit in the very utterances he condemns. It’s at this point that the film’s critique of political authority starts to take on more existentialist and panoramic coordinates, as nature succumbs to the same endless modulation as the conversations that take place against it, moving from season to season even as every single scene seems to be suffused with the restless late autumnal ambience of the opening scenes. The autumn wind, in particular, finds its way into every interstice, as Ceylan orchestrates many of the most brooding moments around open and ajar doors, an emotional architecture that leads Sinan to observe that “rupture and separation lie in wait for everything beautiful…in which case why not treat these tribulations as constructive disasters that help us pierce out own mysteries?” In the final scenes of the film, he comes close to doing just that, returning home once again after military service to realise that his father, of all people, was the only person in the whole town to read and reflect on his book.
Yet while Idris might praise the book as “my best friend” by observing that “the young should criticise the old – that’s how progress works,” the overwhelming import of these final moments is that some great generational rupture has occurred in Turkish culture that can’t be resolved or restored through either reconciliation or rebellion. Still unable to find the right balance between embracing and exceeding the previous generation, Sinan eventually finds himself identifying with his father more than anyone, but not in a way that breeds continuity or a sense of familial lineage. Instead, both men end up barren, as Idris is forced out of the family home to a small hut on his own father’s property, while Sinan never feels he has realised himself sufficiently to marry or start a family of his own. Like the wild pear trees of the title, they’re “misfits, solitary, misshapen,” and the film concludes with Sinan having a vision of hanging himself in his father’s well, which still hasn’t drawn water, before jumping in to continue digging, all these years later, for the final shot. Between those two images, Ceylan paints a wrenching portrait of young Turkish men as unable to either live or die in the shadow of generational tradition, and forced, instead, to subsist on the restless momentum that Sinan has poured into his writing, his speech and, finally, this task – the momentum that gives the film its pace, its length, and its sense of unbearable urgency.
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