'The Wild Pear Tree' ('Ahlat Agaci'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A slow, dense look at Turkey today.

Generations collide in a coming-of-age story set in Turkey from Cannes Palme d’Or laureate Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Returning to the Cannes stage four years after winning the Palme d’Or for his scenes-from-a-marriage pic Winter Sleep, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan looks at his country through the prism of a grim coming-of-age tale stripped of lyricism and joy. Slow and surprisingly talky, the three hours of The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci) do not exactly fly by, and the experience is similar to plunging into a long novel (the hero is a budding novelist) laced with philosophy, religion, politics and moral puzzles. The final sequences are worth the wait, though, bringing together the story’s many threads and offering the classic closure of a young man coming to terms with his identity.

All of Ceylan’s films unfold leisurely, of course, and a three-hour running time is nothing unusual, but what is striking here is the uneasy impatience in the shooting, the characters' placement in a natural world but their incapacity for reflection. Significantly, in the imagery there's a determined lack of the lyricism that many fans have come to expect. This directorial choice to forgo beautiful distractions for a more realistic approach seems linked to the film's undercurrent of contemporary events, from riots and police violence to the rise of the religious right. A co-production of six European countries and released by Memento FIlms, The Wild Pear Tree looks destined for festival audiences and Ceylan's established circle of followers.

Sinan (Dogu Demirkol) is a Turkish boy from the provinces who has just graduated from college and is trying to get his first novel published. He is aptly shown to be in a chrysalis stage between awkward hick (he disparagingly refers to his neighbors as "peasants") and cultivated writer-about-town. Brash and provocative to the point of insolence, he is also one of cinema's best-drawn embodiments of the European economic crisis that keeps youth unemployed and their future an out-of-focus question mark.

The superimposition of the sea, reflected off a window, on Sinan's face in the opening shot suggests the dense, multilayered film that is to follow, which largely takes place in his head, full of plans, uncertainty and discouragement. Lack of money drives him back home to the country — home is a 90-minute bus ride out of Istanbul — to a dysfunctional family being destroyed by his father Idris' gambling habit. The respect they once enjoyed in the village because Idris is an educated schoolteacher has eroded to finger-pointing and open demands for the repayment of loans.

Amid a flurry of everyday problems and frustrations, the theme of personal responsibility gradually emerges, specifically Sinan's duty to his weak father (portrayed by Murat Cemcir in a giggling, positively haunting performance). As soon as Sinan steps off the bus, diploma in hand, he is hit upon by a jeweler who loaned his father three gold coins.

The matter of the gold coins will return several times in the film. Sinan meets a young woman he went to school with (Hazar Erguclu) and is shocked that she is now wearing a headscarf and has dropped her education to marry. The person she is marrying is not her longtime boyfriend but an older jeweler (no doubt the one we saw in the previous scene), and the strong implication is that her family has forced her into it. Her feeble efforts to rebel with a cigarette and a stolen kiss are pathetic.

Everybody is obsessed with money and how tight it is, especially Sinan's put-upon mother (a fine Bennu Yildirimlar) who still loves her erring husband. When Sinan runs into the local imam (Akin Aksu), who is up a tree stealing apples and tossing them to another young cleric, he hints at the gold coins the fellow has borrowed from his aged grandfather, the town's former imam. This fast-spoken scene is electrifying in its innuendo about the growing role of Islam in Turkish life, as the hard-liner drowns out the reformist, with Sinan caught in the middle.

Another thread in the story shows Sinan's unhappy search for a job. He's realistic enough to know writing novels doesn't pay the bills, and idealistic enough to figure out how compromised many writers are. In a loud confrontation with a famous author in an Istanbul bookstore, which continues furiously on a bridge, Sinan is accused of callow excesses, and he accuses the writer of being "a slave waiting to be bought." The dialogue flows in a torrent as though to veil its subtle meaning, and it takes some thought to understand what is at stake in this key scene about artistic freedom.

Rather surprisingly, Sinan is also toying with the idea of finding employment in the riot police, where a friend of his happily bashes the heads of leftist demonstrators. It seems to him no worse a prospect than becoming a schoolteacher like Dad and getting assigned to the Far East.

As the film spirals through various aspects of Sinan's frustrations, it slowly comes down to his anger toward his father. Cemcir, best known in Turkey for his comedy roles, is an inspired piece of casting as Dad. This nonviolent man who has lost all his dignity, struggles to assert his authority at home and passionately loves his dog (a key player in the story) — the only living creature who doesn't judge him — seems to represent much more than just himself. "To survive in Turkey, you need to adapt," warns the imam, but Idris simply can't. Will Sinan?

The film's final scene resolves the conflict between the old and new generations in two ways, for better and worse, and audiences can choose which ending is real and which is a dream.

Though there isn't much poetry to this story, it doesn't mean the images aren't eye-catching, like the white, vertical roads up mountainsides that recall Kiarostami country. Ceylan’s regular DP, Gokhan Tiryaki, paints a tactile portrait of rural Canakkale, where the Turks won the long Gallipoli campaign against Britain and France in World War I and, a bit farther back, where the historic city of Troy is thought to be located. Music is used very sparingly — just an interrupted excerpt of Bach's "Passacaglia in C minor," which brings young Sinan back to his dreams and anxieties.

Production companies: Zeyno Film, Memento Films Production, Detailfilm, RFF International, Sisters and Brother Mitevski, Production 2006, Film I Vast, Chimney Pot Sverige
Cast: Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yildirimlar, Serkan Keskin, Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Hazar Erguclu, Tamer Levent, Oner Erkan, Kadir Cermik, Akin Aksu
Director-editor: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Screenwriters: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Akin Aksu
Producers: Zeynep Ozbatur Atakan, Fabian Gasmia, Stefan Kitanov, Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Labina Mitevska, Olivier Pere
Director of photography: Gokhan Tiryaki
Production designer: Merel Aktan
Music: Mirza Tahirovic
Casting: Erkut Emre Sungur
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Memento Films

188 minutes