By Liam Lacey
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the celebrated Turkish director, makes art films the way they used to be made, in the footsteps of heroes named Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky and Ozu. These are stories of loneliness and the search for life’s purpose, unrestrained by genre forms.
At three hours without much obvious plot, the movie is, no doubt, a bit of a butt-number, though there’s enough wry humour, visual delight, and psychological insight here to more than reward an open-minded viewer. At the beginning, Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol), a roughly handsome young college grad who wears a perpetual frown of expected disappointment, returns to his home village of Can near the port city of Çanakkale (where Ceylan grew up).
The city is set on the southern coast of the Dardanelles, near the historic sites of two famous battles a couple of millennia apart: the legendary siege of Troy, depicted in Homer's The Iliad, and the Battle of Gallipoli, during the First World War. On the waterfront of Canakkale, we see the prop statue of a wooden horse, a left-over from the 2004 Wolfgang Petersen movie, Troy, an ersatz monument to ancient glories.
As a young artist on the make, Sinan naturally sees his hometown as a place of stagnation and narrow-mindedness. His mother Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar) and teen-aged sister Yasemin (Asena Keskinci) seem more interested in their soap operas on TV than in his return or literary pursuits. Half-heartedly, he prepares to write an exam to become a primary school teacher like his father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), a compulsive gambler who's the village disgrace.
Having his son back home, Idris promptly enlists Sinan to help him with his pet project: digging a well on his grandfather's property in the hopes of striking water. To Sinan’s mind, Idris is a fool, but the old man has an affability and zest for life that his son lacks.
Sinan's exit plan, to avoid digging wells or teaching brats, is to dedicate his life to art, and to publish his novel, entitled The Wild Pear Tree. He describes it as a “quirky, auto-fiction meta-novel,” which means publishers aren't forming a line to help make him rich and famous.
The main action of the film sees Sinan go about the town seeking funding for the vanity publication of his novel. The town's mayor offers a lecture on responsibility and says he could only back a book that celebrated the community. A local construction bigwig with a reputation as a reader explains that, while education is great, "this is Turkey" and money is scarce. For Sinan, there aren't too many options beyond teaching. One of his former classmates now makes good money beating up protesters as a riot cop.
Meanwhile, Sinan goes about compulsively annoying people. At a bookstore, he runs into a local celebrity author, Suleyman (Serkan Keskin). It's a funny, increasingly awkward scene, as Sinan's initial expressions of admiration are quickly exposed as a combination of envy and insult.
Later, Sinan encounters a pair of well-dressed modern young imams, Veysel (Aksu) and Nazmi (Öner Erkan), who he catches stealing apples from a tree. They go on a long walk together, including a stop for tea at a cafe, while engaging discussion about religious idealism and compromise.
Sinan has the gall to point out that the imams materially benefit from the same lotteries that have led his disgraced father to ruin and the imams, who are on their way to a wedding to earn some money, don’t appear to be offended. Around them, the beautiful natural world, passing dogs and sheep, stand as a kind of mute refutation of the men's rationalizations and circular debates.
Significantly, there's only one female character in the film that matters here and she appears in one scene and disappears. Her name is Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), a former classmate who he encounters while she's working in a field. He sees her as a small-town Muslim girl, limited to staying at home until she's married to a local jeweler, but she challenges his condescending assumptions — sharing a cigarette, pulling off her scarf to reveal her luxuriant hair, then delivering a fierce kiss, leaving a bite mark on his bottom lip that he wears for the rest of the film.
The film's ending takes place months after the initial story, with Sinan back home again seeking out his now dispossessed father. Bittersweet barely begins to describe this fugue-al mix of competing emotional states, punctuated by a pair of disturbing dream images, reflecting the father and son's anxiety for each other.
The final melancholy chord arrives with Sinan's recognition that he, like the wild pear trees of the title, is one of the "misfits, solitary, misshapen," forever rooted in the rocky soil of shame and love.
The Wild Pear Tree. Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Written by Akın Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Starring: Aydın Doğu Demirkol, Akin Aksu, Oner Erkan, Murat Cemcir and Hazar Ergüçlü. Opens November 23 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.