My best film of 2018

Watching a Ceylan movie is as demanding as reading James Joyce. ‘The Wild Pear Tree’ isn’t an exception

Though we know they are ad hoc and subjective, we cannot but be riveted by Top Ten lists. So when Barak Obama’s year-end lists were published to much attention, I too began to think of the books, plays, music and films I had most enjoyed in 2018.

Before I knew it, a single name jumped to the top of my head: Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree, Chennai International Film Fest 2018), Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new work. Three hours and 10 minutes didn’t seem a second too long for this saga of a boring, bumptious youngster, ashamed of his parents, disillusioned by school friends, desperate to escape from his dreary village, contemptuous of authority, riled by commercial success, but dreaming of publishing his quirky, autobiographical meta-novel.

Jobless graduate Sinan returns to his village near Port Canakkale, the site of ancient Troy and the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, memorialised by a war museum, and the Trojan Horse from the Brad Pitt film.

His father is a teacher by profession, wastrel by choice, whose wife has to grab his salary the moment it is disbursed, to prevent it from being gambled, or frittered away in impractical schemes — like digging a well in a waterless patch. The mother babysits to keep the family afloat, with the mirage of soap operas to keep her going. Life is no better for grandma, while the grandfather, a retired imam, is exploited by the young priest who borrows from him and gets him to substitute for him in the mosque for free.

Interesting characters

Conversational encounters marked by wry humour advance the story, as Sinan tries to get his novel published with government subsidy and private sponsorship. The state can only support a book for tourists, the businessman only when there is commercial benefit. Other characters add textures. Like senior writer Suleyman, accused of hypocrisy and compromises for easy popularity by Sinan, with all the arrogance of youth, not unmixed with envy. Schoolmate Hatice appears in the olive grove like an enchanting houri under gold light and green leaves, tantalising and irritating Sinan with her beauty and caustic tongue. Rustling leaves and soughing winds rise into a symphonic crescendo, as lights and shades crisscross with moods, climaxing in a slow-burn instant of flaming sensuality.

Force majeure

Here, as elsewhere in the film, indeed in Ceylan’s visually-driven but also writerly oeuvre, there is no pathetic fallacy of nature reflecting human tragedies or global catastrophes. Nature exists as a mysterious force, paradoxical and parallel, independent and inexorable, heightening both our sense of beauty, and our fears of alienation.

Winter mists and whirling snow, scorching sun and craggy rock, crashing waves and whispering trees, they all breathe secrets for intuitive — not reasoned — grasp. Even as weird images, like a sleeping baby covered by ants, intimate the untellable. And yes, Ceylan’s trust in quietness makes him frugal with music.

No wonder then that watching a Ceylan movie is as demanding as reading James Joyce, though critics often describe his oeuvre as Chekhovian. A string breaks — and this faint half-heard sound sends a whole world crashing into dissolution.

In Distant (2002) you feel it in the airport when the protagonist watches unseen his ex-wife leaving the country with her new husband. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) a little boy spontaneously kicks a ball that flies out of a playground as he walks on the street with his mother, carrying his dead father’s belongings, unaware that his murdered father has been officially certified as having committed suicide. Smoky mist and flickering flames image the blurred vision of the lost and the lonely in Winter Sleep (2014).

Two images stand out in the Wild Pear Tree. The contrast of the heroic and the humdrum, ambition and disillusionment, as Sinan climbs into the Trojan Horse left behind by the Troy film crew in Port Canakkale, and is scared out of his daydream by thunderous knocks, and blinding light dispersing gauzy romance. Later, we see Sinan’s dusty books stacked against the wall, proving that publishing cannot guarantee readers or sales. Neither mother nor friends have bothered to read his ‘meta-fiction’.

However, returning after years of military service, Sinan finds his singular reader in his profligate father, now living alone, continuing to dig a well in waterless land, decades of wasted labour notwithstanding. The ne’er-do-well, down-at-heel father remains a man of irresistible charm and unquenchable hope. Having experienced every page of his son’s story, the father tells him one: the parable of the wild pear tree — ugly, misshapen, prickly, solitary, producing sweet fruit.

The film ends with the father waking up to find the son digging his well, joining those who dare to dream: misfits, magi, secret keepers of the mantra auguring survival. That is when, in the land of Troy, we remember that Homer was old, blind, probably ugly and misshapen to boot.

What about Nuri Bilge Ceylan with the lean and hungry look? Did he not say, “There’s quite a distance between my films and the expectations of most spectators… Maybe that’s better”?

The writer is a journalist by profession, musician by circumstance, playwright by obsession, quirky by temperament.

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