Wednesday, October 31, 2018

228. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film “Ahlat agaci” (The Wild Pear Tree) (2018) (Turkey): A slow-paced, contemplative stunner, yet another Ceylan tale of an adult male member within a traditional family, touching on several contemporary problems in Turkey

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most distinguished filmmakers alive and The Wild Pear Tree is arguably one of his best works to date, currently on show at the Denver Film Festival after its premiere at Cannes in the competition section earlier this year. If the viewer is patient to absorb a 3-hour film with lots of loaded conversations and meaningful visuals, the hours spent would be well compensated.  More so, if the viewer is well read and perceptive. It is a film that encompasses social, political and theological thoughts without being too obvious. Remarks made in passing are not easy to ignore in any Ceylan film, less so in this one.

Sinan, the graduate, reads at home rather than look for work

On a very simplistic level, a young man Sinan returns home after graduating in a distant college to his home town after some years.  He realizes his school-teacher father Idris has slid into a compulsive gambler, accumulating debts. His mother Asuman keeps the home running with a combination of tact, practicality and help from her neighbours.  Asuman wants Sinan to earn a living now that he has graduated. Sinan slowly distances himself from his parents. Sinan, who has neither a definite career goal nor a life partner in mind, wishes to first publish his book that he describes as “quirky, auto-fiction, meta-novel, free of faith, ideology or agendas.”  As an unknown author without any money to spare, he has to find financial support to get it printed.   The title of the film The Wild Pear Tree is the title of the book Sinan wants to publish and he does get published eventually.  As the film progresses the symbolic importance of trees is underlined at crucial places within the film visually by the Ceylan’s constant trusted cinematographer GokhanTiryaki. A wild pear tree growing in isolation, bears fruits, just as Sinan has earned a graduate degree. It is still a gnarled tree unlike popular pear trees, just as Sinan struggles for fuller acceptance within his family and community. 

Sinan finally understands his father Idris, who he acknowledges never beat him 
Sinan gives a copy of his book to his mother Asuman, acknowledging
her role in his life

Sinan with his girlfriend minus her head scarf and her tresses blowing
behind a tree

Those who have been exposed to Ceylan’s previous works will spot the common structures of Ceylan’s tales: the father, mother, and son trio in The Three Monkeys (2008); the several husbands and wives recalled by male characters in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) including an unforgettable comment in that film,   “You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father. It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults..”;  and the see-sawing  relationship of a husband and wife in Winter Sleep  (2014) overtly caring and respectful to each other, taking great care not to tread on each other’s toes. All the films are  based on original scripts written by Ceylan and his wife Ebru Ceylan, sometimes working with a third co-scriptwriter; in the case of The Wild Pear Tree it is Akin Aksu,  who additionally acts as one of the two debating Imams in the film. (When this critic had asked director Ceylan on his wife’s contribution to his films, soon after the release of Winter Sleep in a film festival “question and answer” session, Ceylan indicated that he was doubtful if his wife would work on his next film as she felt Winter Sleep was way too lengthy. Evidently, as in the case of all the wives in Ceylan’s films, luckily for us, she has continued to work with her husband in this equally long film: The Wild Pear Tree).

The Wild Pear Tree is structured around Sinan’s one-to-one interactions with several men (the town’s mayor, a wealthy sand merchant, a local author of repute, a former classmate,  two Imams, and his father Idris) and  two women (his mother and his girl friend). The town’s mayor, in his encounter with Sinan, emphasizes that his office is open and has no door and yet his actions seem to be contrary to his speech (an indirect comment on Turkish administrators). In the interaction with the sand merchant, the businessman acknowledges that he has indeed supported cultural causes, if it helps him in indirectly in his business. Conversations reveal a lot. Jobs for graduates are not easy to come by, “Education is great, but this is Turkey” . The film includes a conversation between Sinan and his former classmate who had no option but chose a career in the police, where he has to brutally beat up a friend who is rounded up as a protestor.  

Scene of despondency in Ceylan's The Wild Pear Tree
Similar scene in Ceylan's earlier work  The Three Monkeys

But Sinan does publish his book and present copies to his parents. But the film is not about this accomplishment—it is only a turning point to the bigger story of the film: Sinan’s gradual appreciation of his parents and their love towards him.

The high point of the film is Sinan’s accidental interaction with two Imams (Islamic priests).  Sinan encounters the worthies stealing apples from a tree that does not belong to them and cheekily throws stones at them without revealing his presence to see their reaction.  The tree here is not a pear tree, but the roles of trees in the film are not merely decorative. While you wonder about the possible connection to the tree in the Garden of Eden, the conversation between the Imams and Sinan (who has by now revealed himself) move on to free will in Islamic theology. In negation of the free will concept, most conservative Muslims constantly use the phrase ”Insah Allah” (if Allah wills) just as conservative Jews and Christians say “if it be Thy will” or Hindus refer to the role of  “Karma” and “Atma.”  The long conversation as the trio walks towards the town after picking of the apples can be heard clearly without interruption and the same sound level while the camera of Tiryaki captures the entire walk from varied distances and perspectives. Often the dense script of The Wild Pear Tree can be linked to works of the Turkish Sufi mystic Yusuf Emre and Russian literary masters Chekov and Dostoevsky.  Director Ceylan is considerably influenced by Chekov, as per his own admission to this critic, during a public question and answer session.

Has Sinan's father committed suicide?

There are three occasions when trees make their presence felt in The Wild Pear Tree: once when the Imams pluck the apples that do not belong to them; once when Sinan sees his father had fallen under a tree with a cut rope dangling from it, a perfect suicide scenario; and once when Sinan kisses his girlfriend using the tree trunk for privacy. And all of them are important structural points in the film.

Ceylan, his wife Ebru and cinematographer Tiryaki are a constant talented team who add on other members as key crew members in each film. In The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan uses a short segment of the 14 minute Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor repeatedly with very good effect--a work with religious implications that has been used by Coppola in The Godfather in the baptism sequence and even by Jimi Hendrix in Lift Off.

Without a doubt, The Wild Pear Tree is one of the most important films of 2018, it also happens to be Turkey’s submission for the Oscars.  The only caveat: it requires from the viewer considerable patience and attention to savor the tasteful details.

P.S. Detailed reviews of three earlier works of Ceylan:  The Three Monkeys (2008), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and Winter Sleep (2014) appear on this blog. (Click on the names of the film in the post script to read those reviews). The Wild Pear Tree is one of the author's top 10 films of 2018.

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