Cannes 2018 review: The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Around the midway point of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree the protagonist Sinan (Dogu Demirkol) meets two imams. Veysel (Akin Aksu) is the longstanding local imam, while Nazmi (Öner Erkan) is new to the region. The three men discuss religion and its implications on daily life (they also discuss, among other things, apples). As these conversations do in Ceylan’s films, it meanders for a good twenty minutes or so, but the scene is a reflection of one of the underlying themes of the film and a microcosmos of Turkey as a whole. Whereas Veysel is portrayed as a conservative traditional, the younger Nazmi, coming from a city background, is the more progressive, pragmatic thinking one who defends Sinan’s arguments as much as Veysel opposes them. Without being overtly political, this scene paints a picture of a divided country stuck between tradition and status quo on one hand, and progressiveness and a desire for change on the other. It is at this junction in life that Sinan finds himself.

The Wild Pear Tree is set in Çanakkale, an unassuming seaside town not far from Istanbul (tourist tip: the town has the wooden horse from the 2004 Brad Pitt movie Troy on display). Young college graduate and would-be writer Sinan returns home to his family at an important point in life: school is done, now what to do with the rest of his life? His mother Asuman (Bennu Yildirimlar) would like to see him follow a more traditional path: become a teacher, get married, and continue life as it has always gone in Çanakkale. His father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is more open to Sinan’s idea of becoming a writer. It’s a dream he once chased himself, and even if he eventually had to give up on it, he doesn’t want to impede Sinan’s opportunity to make the same mistakes. The charming old fox has a darker side though: his gambling addiction has left the family finances in ruins. The way this complicates the family dynamics and interpersonal relationships is reminiscent of the soap operas Asuman and daughter Yasemin (Asena Keskinci) like to watch, but Ceylan elevates his story above the mundane through dense dialogue and an absence of histrionics. Idris and Asuman here, again, represent the open and closed mind respectively, even though Idris, minus the gambling, is essentially who Asuman would like to see Sinan become.

Central to the film is the father-son relationship between Idris and Sinan. While the relationship isn’t exactly strained, and at times even downright chummy the way only fathers and sons can be, Sinan is the typical ‘angry young man’ wanting to avoid the mistakes of his old man. Idris, too, was a budding writer before he went east to teach in the more remote parts of the country. This has eventually led him to the life of rural town complacency, and his ambitions have become more simple: restoring his father’s farm. Sinan still has enough lofty dreams to want to avoid going down that same road. Yet him going around town to try and obtain money to get his book published is somewhat akin to his father borrowing money from everybody to finance his betting. A series of encounters blows holes in Sinan’s ideals. Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), formerly a rebellious girl who Sinan was in love with before he left for college, has succumbed to the traditional role expected of her in a small town like Çanakkale. Suleyman (Serkan Keskin), a famous local writer whom Sinan seeks out for advice, destroys Sinan’s ideas of what it means to be a writer when he tells him in no uncertain terms how he feels about Sinan, as he notices the young man throws his advice to the wind and only has petty criticism for the literary establishment on offer. And finally Sinan visits a local contractor, who he was told had a love for the arts and a willingness to invest in them, only to find out that the man did this to score lucrative contracts from the mayor who recommended him to Sinan.

These encounters are prime Ceylan: lengthy conversations about hefty subjects such as life, love, art, and religion, where the point is hidden in the subtext. And essentially that point is Sinan’s choice of what to do with his life, and whether that choice will be the right one. As the film jumps a short bit forward in the last section, Ceylan subjects Sinan to two final conversations, one with his mother and one with his father. These are the most heartfelt and true of all the lengthy talks in the film, in part because Asuman and Idris are the only characters outside Sinan who have full texture. But also because in the end parents are the ones closest to our hearts, and the ones with the most understanding and willingness to go along with whatever choice in life we make. And both conversations also make clear that there is more than meets the eye in the familial bond, especially punctuated by Idris’ words in the final scene. A less-than-perfect character up until then, shown mostly as selfish and careless as he is charming, as a father talking to his son he becomes the most perfect character in the film in a few lines.

Ceylan is still a master of punctuating his themes with characters that exude naturalism in the way they interact with each other, primarily because he is willing to take his time with these interactions. That may all add up to a three-hour running time, but The Wild Pear Tree  never feels that long because you know there is another conversation around the corner to unpack. Because these scenes are allowed to breathe, the actors uniformly excel in them, in particular with the distinctly drawn central characters played by Demirkol, Cemcir, and Yildirimlar. Ceylan’s cinematographical choices are less lyrical than in his previous films Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or Winter Sleep, even though his penchant for the painterly shines through in the scene between Sinan and Hatice, as well as the scenes surrounding the old farm Idris is trying to restore. But his storytelling has become more focused and pointed, and though the film is long, it builds to a magnificent crescendo. The Wild Pear Tree is a humane film about people who resemble the titular tree, gnarly and somewhat misshapen but bearing delicious fruit, yet it is also a film that shows that no matter what choice you make in life, your loved ones will always be with you.