In this blurry week of Jussie Smollett, Donald Trump (it’s every week with that guy) and idly rampant Oscars speculation, the mere existence of “The Wild Pear Tree” seems absurd.
The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, revered as well as hotly debated on the international festival circuit, has never been a filmmaker in step with the rhythms of contemporary life or cinema. Anywhere. Devoted to the spirit of seriocomic inquiry found in Anton Chekhov, among other writers, his movies have carved out a niche for themselves outside many of the usual recognition status symbols. None of his films have ever been nominated for the foreign-language Academy Award. A U.S. distributor — Cinema Guild, this time — acquires a Ceylan title fully aware of its extreme unlikeliness to make anybody any money.
And really, to hell with all that. The work continues, and it’s always worthwhile. Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, “The Wild Pear Tree” may be the one film out there with the uncanny, gorgeously ruminative ability to take you away from everything cluttering a Chicagoan’s head space right now.
That said, and I say it in just about every review of every new Ceylan film: He’s not for everyone. The writer-director Paul Schrader lumps Ceylan in with a small, valuable group of so-called “slow cinema” masters. By running time alone (this one runs three hours and eight minutes), not to mention Ceylan’s defiant lack of conventional story momentum, this coming-of-age reverie will either put the unpersuaded viewer in a fugue state or a taxi by the half-hour mark.
I can’t wait to see it again.
Ceylan and his wife, the actress and writer Ebru Ceylan, collaborated on “The Wild Pear Tree” with Akin Aksun. He knows first-hand (as did the director, in his childhood) the far-western Turkish Çanakkale province.
The film was shot there. Recently graduated from college in Istanbul, a sleepy-eyed, hunch-shouldered writer, Sinan (played by Dogu Demirkol), returns to his village with a question mark hanging over his future. His teachers’ exam looms, threatening to consign him to an unwanted educator’s post somewhere in the east.
His father (Murat Cemcir, master of the reflexive, slightly unnerving chuckle) has gambled the family’s money down to nothing, forcing the graduate’s soap-opera-addicted mother (Bennu Yildirimlar) to cope with rotting food in a fridge without electricity.
Sinan’s options include military service in the riot police; meantime, his debut book, more like a collection of essays on the stifling village life he longs to escape, needs a backer. The movie details his search for money. Its signature scenes are its long and, I think, remarkable two- and three-person dialogues.
A hillside encounter with an old flame (Hazar Erguçlu) begins with a nearly four-minute shot of exquisite rightness and razor-sharp changes in mood. Sinan’s belligerent questioning, in a bookstore, of the region’s one notably successful author is both hilarious and deeply squirmy, as well as genuinely philosophical.
Later, Sinan meets the local imam (played by co-screenwriter Aksun) and a colleague, stealing apples out of a tree. The resulting religious debate between the surly young writer, the imam and another cleric glances on Islam’s place in contemporary Turkey. “The Muslim situation speaks for itself,” the progressive cleric says. “The world has changed and left us behind.” The imam will hear none of it: Reform, he says, will only “open the door to every human fantasy.” Better, he says, “the peaceful shade of unquestioning submission.”
From there, “The Wild Pear Tree” narrows its focus to the father/son relationship at its core. A wintry coda brings a measure of understanding to these two. The film sees them, and Turkey itself, as dangerously repressive and more than a little heartbroken.
Ceylan served as his own editor here, and the movie moves at an unpredictable rhythm very different from his earlier works, long or short. Ceylan’s longtime cinematographer (Gökhan Tiryaki) creates some breathtaking images, both interiors and exteriors, and the sheer visual variety of shots (hand-held, swivel-pans, and what I believe is the first drone camera footage in a Ceylan picture) is fascinating.
There are on-the-nose moments in the script, especially in the coda, which needlessly underline the metaphoric value of the title. The Bach on the soundtrack hits a too-obvious note of yearning. Sinan’s not a rooting-interest sort of protagonist; he lacks shading.
Then again, one of the great strengths of Ceylan’s films continues to be the bracing lack of sentimentality in the script’s authorial stand-ins. Sinan is an arrogant young man, always spoiling for an argument. His father is a failure, living increasingly on his own in the country. For all his evident disappointments, he knows some inner peace, entirely eluding his misanthropic son.
“The Wild Pear Tree” is pretty simple, in the end. It simply isn’t a narrative-forward experience. As Ceylan told one interviewer last year: “An interesting story, I don’t care for, because if the story is strong then everybody begins to serve that story, all the actors, all the expressions — everything.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“The Wild Pear Tree” — 3.5 stars
No MPAA rating (some language)
Opens: Friday and continues through Feb. 28, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org. In Turkish with English subtitles.