Movies

Review: A father-son drama takes absorbing root in ‘The Wild Pear Tree’

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Aydin Doğu Demirkol and Hazar Ergüçlü in the movie “The Wild Pear Tree.”
(The Cinema Guild)
Film Critic

Early on in “The Wild Pear Tree,” a rich and ruminative new movie from the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, there is a bracingly sharp, infuriating exchange — a small masterpiece of irritation. In the coastal Turkish town of Çanakkale, a recent university graduate and aspiring novelist named Sinan (Aydin Dogu Demirkol) enters a bookshop and strikes up a conversation with Suleyman (Serkan Keskin), whom he recognizes as a popular local author.

The older writer cautiously indulges the younger one’s questions. But after a few minutes of listening to what Sinan has to say — backhanded compliments, self-flattering presumptions and callow, high-minded jabs at the temperament of the artist and the state of modern literature — Suleyman decides he’s had enough: “There’s just one reality I’ve been aware of the last half-hour,” he says, interrupting Sinan’s insufferable verbal drip. “The searing pain in my legs and sneaky pain in my neck, just waiting to become a killer migraine.”

The viewer may feel a twinge of sympathy. Since his 1997 debut feature, “The Town,” Ceylan has steadily become one of the world’s most renowned cinematic auteurs. He is a sharp, sympathetic critic of the ennui and malaise that afflict wide swaths of Turkey’s contemporary middle class — a subject that he tackles with such disregard for the usual narrative niceties, and such subtleties of tone and image, as to risk the audience’s impatience, even boredom. I mean that as high praise.

Ceylan’s crowning achievement, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011), was a glumly meditative police procedural that, by the end, felt like nothing short of an autopsy on the human condition. The director won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his next film, “Winter Sleep” (2014), a 196-minute character study filled with imposing landscapes and even more imposing reams of dialogue. Like one of his aesthetic inspirations, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ceylan makes movies that can feel as cold, slow-moving and monumental as a glacier. He is devoted to the principle that a picture sometimes has to go nowhere in particular to arrive at someplace interesting.

“The Wild Pear Tree” persists stubbornly and honorably in this tradition. At just over three hours, the movie is undeniably long, talky and dense, but it is never uninteresting. You might call it slow too, though at the risk of mischaracterizing the speed of its verbiage and the dizzying complexity of its ideas. Sinan, the protagonist, may be naive and arrogant, but he also ponders the kinds of questions — What should the role of the artist in society be? How does one make art in a world with seemingly no use for it? — that Ceylan wouldn’t mock if he didn’t also take seriously.

The story unfolds during a frustrating transitional period in Sinan’s post-graduate life. He has returned from Çanakkale to his family’s home, where he tries in vain to secure funding for his book and stave off an unexciting future as a schoolteacher. His father, Idris (an excellent Murat Cemcir), is a teacher himself, which may account for Sinan’s lack of enthusiasm. Good-natured and rakishly charming, Idris is also a wildly irresponsible man who has spent years gambling away his family’s savings and good reputation.

The influence of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller ... looms heavily over this story of a father and son at odds.

Idris’ recklessness has alienated his long-suffering wife, Asuman (Bennu Yildirimlar), and their teenage daughter, Yasemin (Asena Keskinci), both of whom seek escape by constantly watching television. Sinan, for his part, takes refuge in his deep love for literature, a love that he shares with his creator and which propels him and the movie onward.

“The Wild Pear Tree” is the title of the book Sinan is writing, unpromisingly billed as an “auto-fiction meta-novel,” which will almost certainly prove too cryptic and singular for mass consumption. Some of the movie’s most dryly funny scenes find Sinan approaching various local officials, hoping that one of them will finance his literary project. At one point, he gets into an argument with someone who wonders why he doesn’t write about the historic battles of Troy and Gallipoli, whose martyrs are now buried in Çanakkale’s war cemetery. Sinan, like Ceylan, is interested in quieter dramas and subtler truths.

But he is also, in many ways, his own worst enemy. Demirkol, an engaging screen presence, invests this intellectually ambitious but physically loutish young man with a kind of negative charisma. “The Wild Pear Tree” unfolds as a series of conversations — long, flowing, sharply sculpted and vividly performed — in which Sinan finds himself sparring with old friends and new acquaintances, each time exposing a thin but unmistakable vein of hostility.

A brief, bittersweet reunion with a soon-to-be-married ex-girlfriend, Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), coaxes forth the movie’s most lyrical sequence: a shot of bright autumn leaves that feels like a rush of blood coursing through the crisp, muted tones of Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography. You hear enough from Hatice, and learn enough about the fate that awaits her and other young women in her position, to wish that the movie had granted her even more of a voice.

Later, you also hear from two imams (Akin Aksu and Öner Erkan), one staunchly traditional and the other more open to social and doctrinal change. Their debate with the secular Sinan unfurls over what feels like a small eternity, much of it shot as the three men walk down a hillside. It may seem like a deviation, but it isn’t: Religion, no less than literature or politics or history, offers another cultural and intellectual limbo, a zone of questions without answers.

In slowly tracing a circle around these and other ideas, the movie keeps returning to Idris. As the Variety critic Jay Weissberg astutely noted when “The Wild Pear Tree” premiered at Cannes last May, the influence of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller — an intriguing counterpoint to the long-running Chekhovian streak in Ceylan’s dramaturgy — looms heavily over this story of a father and son at odds.

But Cemcir’s performance, suffused with a kind of wily, defiant grace, has an emotional depth that makes this movie’s spirit not just heavy and somber, but also curiously forgiving. It’s as if Ceylan knows that while the world may judge us all harshly, we don’t have to respond in kind.

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‘The Wild Pear Tree’

Not rated

Turkish with English subtitles

Running time: 3 hours, 8 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang