Turkish author Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues to explore the teeming dichotomies of his homeland – urban/rural, secularism/belief, individualism/tradition and so on – in About dry grasses, his latest entry in the Cannes competition, which centers on educators in a remote rural community. True to recent form (see 2014 Palme d’Or winner Hibernation and the 2018 Cannes contestant The wild pear tree), despite its setting in contemporary Anatolia, this latest work nonetheless plays like an adaptation of a lost, momentous 19ecentury Russian novel of ideas, loved in the mid-20th centurye existentialists and largely forgotten until Ceylan repurposed it.
Of course, that’s not the case, and the script was written by Ceylan himself, his wife and frequent collaborator Erbu Ceylan, and Akin Aksu. Yet the screenplay is clearly opaque, despite the vast chunks of philosophical dialogue and debate it generates. The film is edited in an apparently deliberately frayed style, with sudden abrupt breaks and jerking ellipses. There’s a single WTF fourth-wall-breaking pseudo-Bertolt Brechtian moment that slips away without explanation, and a lumbering voiceover narration that jumps in at the end to try and create a sense of conclusion.
About dry grasses
It comes down to
About drying paint.
Location: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Form: Deniz Celiloglu, Merve Dizdar, Musab Ekicki, Ece Bagci, Erdem Senocak, Yuksel Aksu, Munir Can Cindoruk, Onur Ber Arslanoglu, Yildrim Gucuk, Cengiz Bozkurt
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
screenwriters: Akin Aksu, Erbu Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
3 hours 17 minutes
All of which only makes it harder to guess what Ceylan wants us to think of Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), the film’s irritable, highly unsympathetic schoolteacher anti-hero, seconded by the national education system to a remote eastern village with a large Kurdish subpopulation. Should we see him as an object of ironic mockery with his condescending attitude towards the locals? (At one point, he even tells a class of eighth graders that none of them will ever make interesting art of their own and spend their lives planting potatoes and sugar beets.) Or should we think of him as the abused victim of minxy schoolgirl Sevim (Ece Bagci), who nearly gets him fired with allegations of inappropriate contact (which, based on the evidence in the film, may be exaggerated but not entirely untrue)? Perhaps we’re meant to pick and choose from Column A and Column B a bit and see Samet as a deeply flawed and fallible figure living in odd times, but viewer mileage will vary wildly, and female viewers will likely read him as a number- A tool.
On the surface, he doesn’t seem so bad when we see him returning for another semester after winter break, teasing with his roommate Kenan (Musab Ekici), also a teacher at the school where Samet works, and their other colleagues before that. lessons begin. But there’s something questionable about the way he gives Sevim, a giggling boy and clearly a teacher’s pet, a small gift in the hallway on his way to class. During the next class, another student calls out Samet for always choosing Sevim and her friend to answer questions in class, but Samet shuts him down.
But later, when the senior staff performs a routine bag check looking for contraband such as cigarettes or guns, an unaddressed love letter is found in Sevim’s bag. Somehow everyone knows it is about Samet, who manages to get the letter back and says he will return it to Sevim. But when she comes to ask for it, he pretends to tear it up, a strange power play that the youngster sees right through with her cool, clear, hard stare.
a billet dux that falls into the wrong hands is not the only quasi-19ecentury new device here at hand; there’s also a kind of love triangle – if love isn’t too strong for it – that forms between Samet, the more conventional Kenan, and a teacher at another school named Nuray (Merve Dizdar, a glowing presence and the best of the film). Samet has a blind date with Nuray, but thinking he is too good for her as she lost a leg under circumstances explained later, he subtly manipulates the situation so that she and Kenan can get together instead .
But then he finds out that because of her disability, Nuray could easily be transferred to Istanbul, the broadcast of Samet’s dreams. This suddenly makes her much more attractive to Samet, especially since he agrees with Kenan and somehow blames him for everything when both young men are accused of inappropriate behavior at work.
Everything comes to a head when Samet manages to stop Kenan from coming to a previously discussed group dinner with Nuray and only appears with flowers, intending to seduce her. The scene in which they debate activism (Nuray is left-wing; Samet quasi-libertarian or just selfish), community involvement and civic pride, and the meaning of life is a great piece of dialectical theater, shot with verve as the two characters ping-pong opinions about and back to each other. Nuray clearly has a formidable intellect, but the recent loss of her leg has greatly damaged her self-confidence and lowered her chances of marriage in what is still an extremely patriarchal society – however much she herself has deviated from such gender-normative thinking. Dizdar’s expressive face shows every passing thought cloud during the elaborate, fateful scene, and Celiloglu beautifully accompanies her throughout. He, too, is a strong performer, even if, as mentioned before, the character remains a top-notch resource all along.
After this dramatic climax, the film goes downhill into predictable territory, eventually ending up in a swampy quagmire of garrulousness and so-called profundity, expressed in voice-over at the end. But at least the images are beautiful, with Ceylan’s signature use of snow-covered landscapes and wide-angle lenses in the foreground.