Tim Lowell
May 19 2018

Turkish film an elaborate hit at Cannes

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has impressed many of the critics at Cannes with his latest, three-hour-long film, The Wild Pear Tree, but has put off others with its extreme depth and complexity.

The director of the 2014 Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep and the 2011 Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was given a fifteen-minute standing ovation by the crowd at the end of the premiere.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described The Wild Pear Tree as “an unhurried, elegiac address to the idea of childhood and your home town – and how returning to both has a bittersweet savour… not unlike a telenovela of family life, taken at a very high-minded, andante pace.”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan

The film follows Sinan, a young graduate returning to his home town in the Aegean province of Çanakkale and despairing of the unintellectual nature of rural life and his gambling-addicted father.

He is looking for money to be able to self-publish his novel, which he has named The Wild Pear Tree. At the same time, he revisits a woman he was once in love with and debates the meaning of life with a pair of imams.

The question of how to maintain one’s own youthful lofty ideals and avoid being stuck in a rut in the face of the real world is an evergreen topic of film and literature, and the critics largely saw Ceylan’s take on it as a successful, engaging one.

But the film’s weighty attempts at tackling intellectual themes, whilst hardly heavy-handed, were also tiring for many of those seeking to follow them.

Jonathan Romney at Film Comment said that the film “more than any other this year imposed itself as a grande oeuvre, a major statement from a major director”, but that at the same time the film’s uncinematic level of depth was “problematic”.

“I kept wondering what the viewer was meant to do with this scene as cinema: as I struggled to scribble down phrases like, ‘No one’s more responsible than a person alone with his conscience and his free will,’ it occurred to me that perhaps the only way to adequately absorb this scene would be to watch it at home, replaying sections when necessary, with a notebook in one hand and the film script in the other. On a single viewing, you struggle.”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan

The film, he said, achieved its literary end through literary means rather than cinematic means, and this meant that it was a difficult watch.

Jay Weissberg at Variety agreed that the narrative was hard to break down, mentioning the “elaborate rhetorical set pieces of such density that digesting them in all their intricacies at one sitting is practically impossible”.

“Even more than in his previous film, Ceylan and his fellow scriptwriters (wife Ebru Ceylan along with Akın Aksu, also acting) develop astonishingly complex spoken recitatives that weave philosophy, religious tradition, and ethics together into a mesmerizing verbal fugue. For his fans, the three hours won’t feel like an indulgence, but those less sympathetic to the shared primacy of verbiage and imagery will likely feel tested,” Weissberg said.

“The achievement is masterful, though its diffusion will be limited.”