“Who says free will is free? Even if it was, how could you trust it?”
Acclaimed Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not one to conform to the current trends of mainstream; rip-roaring films spread over 90 minutes. Instead, after winning the highest prize at the Cannes Festival in 2014 with Winter Sleep, his drama film Wild Pear Tree (Turkish: Ahlat Ağacı, 2018) continues in the tradition of long lost epic productions. The ones that promise mind-blowing results to those who can wait for the plot to develop through dialogue rather than action.
Young graduate Sinan (Doğu Dermikol) is forced to return to his village and stay with his parents while he decides what to do with his future. His plan to publish his first book is stalling, and with each step he takes in the old streets seeing familiar faces again, he feels the weight of the small community smothering him. His hate for the place is further ignited by his despise for his irresponsible and gambling father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), who seems preoccupied with digging a well against all reason and advice.
Almost like a play following four separate plot lines and a series of interwoven appearances, the film revolves around the characters’ development and their rich, yet complicated interactions, which uncover the rawest parts of humanity. In a coming of age dialectic, Sinan’s initial idealism to change the old ways is masterfully tainted by his sense of superiority, which leads him to openly deride a local author and laugh at the police beating students during a protest.
His father’s opposition to anything new and unfamiliar drives their relationship towards an indirect discussion of patrimony, while his mother Asuman (Bennu Yildirimlar) is torn between reminding her son to respect his father, and protecting him from his destructive behaviours.
The story is largely based on author and screenwriter Akin Aksu’s life, personality, and his relationship with his father. Both men happened to be the director’s neighbours in Çanakkale, and upon meeting reserved Aksu, Ceylan was so impressed by him that he asked for a written memoir of his thoughts and feelings. Aksu not only earned himself a screenwriter position but also an actor’s role as the character of talkative Imam Veysel. Nonetheless, in an interview, Ceylan admitted that he gave Idris the same loud, sarcastic laughter that his own dad had.
In the background of his native Turkish countryside, the director reveals the existential crisis plaguing his contemporaries in a community, where the old and the new seem to collide at every corner. The anxiety felt by many young people in view of the financial and social turmoil is perfectly expressed by the screenwriters (Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan), who choose a humanities graduate to face the challenges of real life after university. Lead actor Doğu Demirkol had never acted in a film before, and he rose to the challenge of memorizing long sequences of dialogue and acting them out while redefining his character’s relationship to himself and the world.
The rural town of Çan, near Çanakkale, serves as a canvas for cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, allowing him to enchant the viewers as Sinan roams around without so much as a glance at the autumnal beauty we delight in. Traversing along Sinan, we are offered a rare view into the sociopolitical subtleties and the religious beliefs that form life in rural Turkey.
The film also explores the fears and hopes of different people at different ages. The universal context of the elaborate conversations and the subtle way these are delivered make for a long, rewarding cinematic experience, in which performances take the front seat in a philosophically layered drama.
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