Films about writing tend toward the cloddish. Besides the challenge of presenting visually an internal process working itself out externally, the prose shared by the writer often isn’t worth the bother. The Wild Pear Tree avoids these missteps. By concentrating on the long simmering tensions between Sinan and his family, The Wild Pear Tree points to other material the would-be novelist can masticate and digest. Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s (Climates, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Winter Sleep) project has the texture of an Edward Yang or Arnaud Desplechin, two directors whose film had the delicious sprawl of novels and weren’t afraid of courting melodrama.
A recent college grad with few prospects except to pass a teaching exam, Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) returns to Çan as, in the words of critic Tomris Laffly, a literary Llewyn Davis who is unlikely to become Bob Dylan. Rumors about his father’s gambling hound him even before they’ve reunited — he owes this man three gold coins, that man suggests İdris trade a beloved hunting dog. When Idris (Murat Cemcir) finally appears, he’s a mild-mannered man with a faintly ironic sense of humor, a practical joker with whom Sinan has a joshing relationship. Idris seems immune to the damage in his wake; his wife Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar) at forty has taken up babysitting at forty. Their hopes rest on Sinan’s passing a nationwide teacher’s exam.
At the center of The Wild Pear Tree are a series of conversations between Sinan and Süleyman (Serkan Keskin), a literary novelist of reputation who hangs out a local bookstore. Surrounded by posters of Virginia Woolf and other personages, Süleyman exudes an oracular air as he endures Sinan’s lame defenses of his novel. “Mine is one of those books that can’t be described in two sentences,” he says without a shred of self-consciousness. Or shame: at one point he chides Süleyman for selling out, or something, while using phrases like “life culture” as if they meant anything. This commingling of envy, contempt, and mild affection animates their exchanges. A coterminous sorting out happens between Sinan and Idris too; rare is the film curious enough about the fraught ways in which fathers and sons assert themselves while being generous enough to let the other live his life.
Justly renowned for discursive explorations of modern Turkish life, Ceylan is incapable of filming static conversations. For all their chatter, movies like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia don’t sever characters from landscapes. That 2011 film, one of the century’s most patient and surprising police procedurals, was clear on how the flatness of the topography outside Keskin influences the conversations between doctor, prosecutor, and police officers about yogurt and philosophy. In The Wild Pear Tree, a similar fusion occurs in a leisurely sequence in which Gökhan Tiryaki’s tracking shots follow Sinan and his dead ender friends arguing about faith on dirt roads and crumbling wooden fences as mangy dogs scamper. In every Ceylan film a moment occurs irrelevant to the narrative that stops it cold with its mysterious beauty. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has a scene in which the officers, having heard a mayor disparage his youngest daughter, watch in silent awe — a rebuke to her father — as she sets up lamps after a blackout; The Wild Pear Tree includes a shot of a baby covered in ants and another minutes later of the purported death of a certain character by hanging.
What do these scenes portend? Why should they “portend” a thing? Enthralled by an absorptive vision that assumes ephemera and events of consequence resonate on the same value scale, Ceylan continues to write and direct some of this decade’s best films. I can think of few directors with whose work I wouldn’t want to be stuck during this homebound chapter of our lives.