The Wild Pear Tree is an astonishing achievement, seeming to condense a sprawling coming-of-age novel within the confines of a three-hour movie. Taking one of the simplest premises in literature — that hazy summer between graduation and real life — Nuri Bilge Ceylan has created one of the most memorable films in recent memory.
The story meanders and flows like the current of life itself, absorbing us fully into the life of its protagonist, Sinan (Dogu Demirkol). He has returned back to his hometown of Çan after finishing university, where he studied to be a teacher. But really he is a writer, and he has written a manuscript that he describes as a work of quirky metafiction. Unenthusiastic in following his father’s footsteps as a teacher, the main arc concerns his efforts to get his book published. This dedication to non-ideological auto-fiction — what he calls the essential secrets of existence — proves difficult, however, as the local authorities in charge of the cultural budget have far more interest in books that promote tourism, or the stories of local heroes. Therefore, when Sinan tells a potential publisher that he is far more interested in the eighty year-old wino selling things on the street than writing yet another book about Gallipoli Battlefield, he is promptly shown the door.
However, Sinan has never done things by the book (wink, wink). A natural contrarian, he is always challenging other people’s opinions. For example, when he meets another writer in a local bookshop, he starts by asking innocuous questions before subtly digging under his skin, causing the elder man to react in unexpected and deeply funny ways. The only person he finds impossible to challenge is his own father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), who has slowly frittered away the family savings in the betting shop, and has lost the family respect in the local town. Sinan has to not only find his own path in the world, but to make sure he doesn’t lose (or become like) his father in the process.
The Wild Pear Tree manages to bring both arcs together in an unexpected, yet deeply touching way. Think of it like a masculine version of Lady Bird in both the way its protagonist claims to hate his hometown yet manages to be perceptive of every detail, and in its achingly beautiful depiction of familial relationships. Everyone will see a part of themselves in Sinan and Idris, making The Wild Pear Tree a remarkably accessible work that should hopefully translate globally in the weeks and months to come.
It is a film in the tradition of the novel of ideas, employing dialogue to enrich the themes of the story. In its weighty length and philosophical ambition, it brings to mind the novels of Thomas Mann. Self-reflexive without feeling gimmicky, it feels like the movie is constantly commenting upon itself. Sinan’s book contains the same richly observed detail and slice-of-life naturalism that we see in the film itself, adding in minutia that other writers and directors would probably trim from their final product. This seems to set up Sinan’s attitude as a prescription for life and literature itself. The best things in life are really just all around us — all we have to do is look.
This is not to say that Sinan is some wishy-washy sentimentalist; he is more a romantic in the traditional sense. Like the wild pear tree we never see but which gives the movie its title, he is a little gnarled and strange, constantly marked out from the rest of the pack. Even when meandering, digressions still function as intriguing expressions of character. The combination of writing, directing, musicality, and physical presence allows the viewer to sink into the mindset of Sinan, letting us to see the world as he does. Additionally, apart from one brief and fleetingly gorgeous scene, the movie gives him no sexual subplot or female partners. By removing what seems like an essential part of the coming-of-age genre, The Wild Pear Tree is far more strengthened as a result. It’s unorthodox, and works like a charm.
This unorthodox approach to narrative construction is best reflected in the dialogue, with scenes running far far longer than a traditional Hollywood movie would allow. It is simply beautiful writing, ebbing and flowing with the feel of real life. Simply put, Ceylan is one of the finest writers of dialogue around. Going from the film alone, Turkish seems remarkably flowery; sentences are constantly peppered with metaphors and allusions to scripture and poetry. There is a great sense of articulation here, giving it the feel of the best university seminar you ever went to.
In one of the most remarkable scenes in the film, Sinan bumps into two imams and has an incredible conversation about faith in the modern world. Lasting nearly half an hour, it could’ve easily sunk any other movie. In Ceylan’s hands it becomes a form of Socratic dialogue in its own right — this refreshing and relaxed depiction of men of faith as intellectual and hip youngsters is one of the most fascinating scenes I have seen in recent modern cinema.
The Wild Pear Tree is over three hours long, which may seem forbidding to some viewers, but it wouldn’t have been the same film if it had been under ninety minutes. The long running time forces the viewer to really focus, to get into the rhythm of these characters, and to almost become a part of the town itself. The nature of time is constantly commented upon, and we are told that despite things seeming to appear stagnant, it still marches on with or without our consent. By constantly creating scenes of relaxed and unforced naturalism, we are absorbed within each moment, making that slow creep of time feel only that more affecting.
Yet even when The Wild Pear Tree seems to be aimless, Ceylan is subtly putting together all the pieces, slowly leading us up to its heart-in-mouth finale. Combining the themes and anecdotes seen in the dialogue with some carefully planned dramatic conflict between father and son, the ending arrives with a complete knock-out blow. The mastery of form here is astounding.