Nuri Bilge Ceylan films are always widely anticipated events, both in Turkey and in art house cinema circles abroad. In his new and arguably most autobiographical film "The Wild Pear Tree", Ceylan returns to his native town, Çan, to follow the story of Sinan Karasu, a character that is himself returning to his village after his years as an undergraduate in the "big city" of Çanakkale.
Çan is a small town caught between the rural and the industrial, and the film is interspersed with the idyll of beautiful greenery, and a huge factory (one of Turkey's biggest ceramic companies is located there) keeps appearing in the background as Sinan rambles on in pursuit of his ill-fated schemes.
Indeed, it does not take the viewer long to realize that Sinan, although we may be invited to view the story through his eyes, is an arrogant young man whose disillusionment with his village and his family does little to endear him to the audience. You have to brace yourselves, because you will be with him on a ride that is a little more than three hours. But as a member of the Ceylan audience you cannot expect anything less. And although I would say that the film's length is symptomatic of what I take to be the general problem of editing in the arts in this country, I rarely found myself bored, except for a lengthy discussion between a traditional and a progressive imam - and even that scene was saved by the quality of the acting, despite the at times awkward dialogue.
The film, in fact, seems to be stitched together from such dialogues - ones in which Sinan is an interlocutor or arbitrator. The most beautiful of these comes at the beginning of the film, in which Sinan shares a moment of intimacy with the village belle, whose impending marriage to a rich man seems to have given her a wisdom and sarcasm that is much superior to Sinan's - although he is supposed to be the one who has seen a bit of the world.
I must declare an interest here. Up to the age of 15, I spent at least one week of every summer visiting relatives in Çanakkale, and so the usual Ceylan shots lingering on the landscape were nostalgic treats for me. I have spent many an hour sipping soda in the cafes by the strait, with tablecloths fluttering in the wind - Çanakkale straits are always windy - like the one that Sinan visits after an abortive attempt to sit an exam for recruitment. He is a graduate of a program called "classroom teaching," a course, I often think, that has been cobbled together by the Turkish Education Ministry simply for the sake of diversifying education departments. Sinan is aware of his predicament and jokes at one point that if his plans don't pan out, he will sit the exam for becoming a police officer, the fate of almost all "classroom teaching" graduates.
Sinan's plan is to become a writer. He already has a manuscript which he believes is the "great provincial novel," which he goes touting from establishment to establishment for financial help with its publication. These are excruciating scenes to watch because of the extreme unlikeability of both sides of the conversation. Sinan is arrogant and condescending toward the people he is supposed to ask help from, the moneyed men are naturally philistines who find it hard to reject Sinan outright and so keep prolonging the conversation. Sinan's arrogance, somewhat checked by the possibility that one of these men may cough up the money, loses its fetters when he runs into a relatively well known "provincial writer" in a bookshop. All of the rancor collected in him spews out - and when at the end of this unfortunate confrontation Sinan has the audacity to ask this author whether he would have time to read the manuscript, the audience wonders whether Sinan actually set out to offend the author, or just couldn't stop himself once the conversation took a certain turn.
Having thoroughly annoyed the author and defeated his own purpose, Sinan continues in his destructive mood, engaging in a bit of casual vandalism. What follows is the funniest sequence of the film, as Sinan starts running away when his misdemeanor is discovered. Through the narrow streets of Çanakkale he reaches the square where the Trojan horse that was used in the Brad Pitt film is displayed. He manages to get in, closes the lid, but then someone tries to force their way in - all of which turn out to be the dream he's been having as he doses in the "dolmuş" (a public shuttle bus) bound for Çan.
This leaves Sinan with no option but to look for "help" closer to home, an uneasy space with a father that has gambled away the family's money, a mother who now holds the dad's bankcard so he doesn't go away and blow it on the horses again, and a touchy and bored sister who is not taken in by the intellectual airs Sinan gives himself. Sinan's movement toward and away from his family, particularly from his father, make up the core of the story. Ceylan starts by portraying the father as an irresponsible happy go lucky figure who doesn't care about the dire straits he has put his family in. His half attempts at rehabilitation are exposed by the petty, embarrassing lies he tells his family to get money out of them. But toward the end Ceylan manages to turn this narrative on its head, and makes us doubt our convictions about the father, and feel a little guilty for taking Sinan's version of events at face value.
The film went on screens in the last week of Ramadan, when kinship ties are exercised and tested with big family gatherings that culminate during the Eid holiday. Turkish audiences will have recognized the various family dynamics and the small town politics in which they invariably find themselves in when they visit relatives for Eid celebrations. In that respect, the film's length, its insistence on keeping us in the company of people who annoy us but whom we are irrevocably connected to just adds to the sense of "The Wild Pear Tree" being one of those interminable family gatherings that sometimes make us tear our hair out, but that also leaves a warm glow inside us afterward.