To this Turkish critic, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is our Mike Leigh and Anton Chekhov in one, with multilayered characters of social and political complexities engaging through dialogue lines that feel both off-the-cuff and studiously planned in their lavish rhythms. Ceylan is also a master of luxuriously slow cinema with a recognizable visual style, haunting, minimalistic and sneakily riveting across textured, widescreen pastoral scenes and dimly-lit interiors that evolve with peerless patience.
Written by Ceylan, Akin Aksu and Ebru Ceylan, his latest stunner “About Dry Grasses”—Ceylan’s best feature since “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”—flutters with all these pictorial qualities and emotional dispositions. It’s a searing, mesmerizing and unforgettably wintry mood piece and character study that is in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, nearly a decade after his “Winter Sleep” won the Palme d’Or.
It’s also a deeply Turkish film that gently shudders with something specific at a time when Turkey is once again at a political and social crossroads, with an ongoing election that finally threatens the standing of the current conservative government’s two-decade rule, as well as the aftermath of a major earthquake that recently devastated a big portion of the country’s southeast.
That something is an undercurrent of undeniable exhaustion at a national level, a state of Turkish being long in the making, well before the aforesaid election and natural disaster. “The weariness of hope,” one character casually calls it near the end of the film’s runtime of nearly three-and-a-half hours during an escalating quarrel between two intellectuals, a Ceylan mainstay. Indeed, this is a country where almost everyone is tired: those who’ve been stubbornly fighting for the causes they believe in, those who’ve given up on their losing fight, those who’re just trying to get to the next day in one piece, body and soul…
Among the everyday people feeling the fatigue is the perennial burnout Samet (an enigmatic, often aptly prickly Deniz Celiloglu), a cynical elementary school art teacher returning to his tiny, snow-covered village in Eastern Turkey to continue his job after a school break or, let’s say, to conclude it once and for all. With dreams of being transferred to an Istanbul school soon, Samet—the latest addition to Ceylan’s long list of misanthropic men—has been stuck at this recent mandatory post for four years, looking forward to his fast approaching departure.
Our way into Samet’s headspace (and sometimes outright appalling personality) is a faint air of inappropriateness between him and his young student Sevim (Ece Bagci, who should be a star in the making), a bubbly and giggly young girl evidently pleased to be the favorite of the teacher she seems to have a crush on. Samet’s demeanor towards her is just one of those questionable and uncomfortable things the grown-up eye notices quickly—the physical proximity between the two, the innocent enough yet still improper gifts given by Samet, the favoritism he displays in class that crosses a border.
On paper, Samet doesn’t technically commit an offense. But he does shockingly enable and even groom Sevim’s youthful crush on him all the same, for no other reason than to prop up his own bruised ego. He’s bored, isolated and sometimes frighteningly snappy with his students. So the sweet Sevim’s crush amid this nothingness is just a casual toy for him to cruelly play with.
His roommate, Kenan (Musab Ekici), seems more content with his post out East, a remote place challenged by harsh climate and political realities unfairly tough on the region’s Kurdish populations that Kenan doesn’t see as a sacrifice to serve to. The worst instincts in Samet surface through his imagined rivalry with Kenan. When some “inappropriate contact” allegations get made against both of them by unnamed students (thought we know who they are), Samet conveniently defaults into believing that it’s really Kenan that’s dragging him into the mess.
And when the two teachers meet Nuray (an enthralling Merve Dizdar), an educator and lefty artist and activist who’s lost her leg in an explosion, Samet goes out of his way to block her friendship and possible romantic union with Kenan. He can’t stomach that Nuray might see something pure, earned and authentic in Kenan—in short, the qualities he doesn’t lean on as an apathetic individual who complains about everything, but doesn’t care to be the hero to change anything.
While “About Dry Grasses” isn’t a blatantly political film with spelled out partisan sentiments, social, economic, gender, religious and diversity politics are internalized everywhere on its soil, with both vigor and a dry sense of humor. Perhaps the only exception to this is a fiery dinner scene with Nuray and Samet, when she confronts his indifferent attitude with her fighting spirit. “What kind of a man are you?” she demands to know. “What is it that you think you want to contribute to the world once you transfer to Istanbul and take your problems with you?”
It’s an impeccably written and performed quarrel during which a lesser filmmaker would only go as far as applauding Nuray’s courage and scolding Samet’s lack of enthusiasm. But that’s too easy for Ceylan to leave it at that. Because he can write a certain type of self-absorbed and entitled male character so well with both critique and understanding, he makes sure we comprehend the source of Samet’s nihilism at the end of this enthralling sequence, as much as we admire and approve of Nuray’s commendable valour.
Elsewhere, Ceylan nurtures “About Dry Grasses” with artistic touches. Photographic portraits of villagers, poetically shot frosty vistas captured by cinematographers Cevahir Sahin and Kürsat Üresin and talky, richly executed set-pieces with side characters as memorable as the principles deepen his story of those who can use ample doses of hope regardless of how drained they might feel. After all, that might be the only real currency one has left to invest.