The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci) is a masterpiece by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Turkish Delightby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After graduating in creative writing, would-be novelist Sinan (Aydin Dogu Demirkol) returns home to his parents and sister in a small village outside the Turkish coastal town of Çanakkale to decide on his future.
That’s what The Wild Pear Tree is nominally about. But Çanakkale is a tourist destination, the site of ancient Troy, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s filmic Trojan horse (in deadpan shots we even see the stucture left behind after the making of Brad Pitt’s Hollywood film though no one comments on it) mesmerisingly opens out into a riveting, wide-ranging look at the state of Turkish society today – its morality, politics, economy and unemployment, religion in an increasingly hardline Muslim country – and examines their relationship to the arts and creativity, be it writing or also filmmaking.
Sinan is not a particularly endearing character. He resents being back home again. He meets a female former schoolfriend Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), who may or may not have once been a girlfriend, and who he may or may not be in love with, and discovers she is now wearing a headscarf and getting married, though not to the person he thought. He unenthusiastically takes the state exams to enable him to get a last-resort posting as a teacher because he has no other prospect of work. He has to decide about doing his military service.
He tries to get funding from local bigwigs to publish his novel, a collection of short essays of musings on the local area titled The Wild Pear Tree, but they’re not very impressed as it doesn’t promote tourism. And he argues with everyone in a contrarian way: much of the film is taken up by long takes of Sinan’s peripatetic discussions with various people whilst walking, rather in a Linklater style, such as his long debate with two local imams (that he catches scrumping apples), one traditional and one progressive – its seriousness subtly undercut by the ambient sounds of bleating sheep.
Ceylan (Winter Sleep, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) alternates scenes of great beauty, such as Sinan’s brief meeting with Hatice in a golden orchard, with scenes of dry observation: after Sinan is obliviously and insultingly tactless with the local celebrity author Süleyman (Serkan Keskin) about his work, in a bookshop and walking with him, an incident with a statue on a bridge is quietly yet hilariously slapstick. As well as sympathetic humour, there are startling dream sequences that don’t seem like dreams and two really heart-stopping shock moments.
But the human centre of the film is the working out of Sinan’s fractious relationship with his father. Idris (played by comedian Murat Cemcir) is the charismatic local schoolteacher, a handsome charmer but also a compulsive gambler who has gambled away all the family’s money and property, building up huge debts so that they’re living hand to mouth, yet who continues to gamble with any cash he can get hold of – a constant cause of bitter arguments. He is also determined to dig a well on land the family owns, despite being told that there’s no water there, a fruitlessly Sisyphean metaphorical task – maybe. Another drily observed scene is of Idris and Sinan working together, attempting to raise one of the boulders that fill the dry shaft.
And it’s Idris who provides the key to the film when he describes the fruit of the wild pear tree and explains what it means to him and explains its metaphorical meaning to Sinan – and to us. Sinan is a writer who admits he doesn’t like people, and we have to wonder if such a combination is possible. And he doubts whether anyone will actually read what he has written. After university, the film shows his ‘sentimental education’ in real life. His father Idris, on the other hand, despite his many faults and failures, has an understanding of human nature and he reveals an unsuspected well of human kindness.
The Wild Pear Tree is a humane masterpiece that slowly creeps up on you, beautifully made and magnificently acted. It’s a long film but its 188-minute running time is so involving from beginning to end that I would not wish it any shorter.
The Wild Pear Tree premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 30 November 2018 in the UK.