MIFF Review: The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) delivers his latest 188 minute opus in the form of The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı). Utilising the focus of a lower class family and their returning son as a springboard to delve into philosophical debates around life, religion, fallibility, literature, and modern day existence in Turkey, it’s a deceptively small scale film with big ambitions. Luckily, it well and truly succeeds for those willing to let its charm wash over them.

Ceylan, who would be Turkey’s most celebrated film maker working today, is no stranger to letting characters and conversations breathe in his films. Winter Sleep clocked in a 196 minutes, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a relatively short 157 minutes. The Wild Pear Tree, as mentioned, comes in at 188 minutes and, even though it feels like it’s wandering through its narrative, there’s something strangely hypnotic and engaging about it. It’s a feature of all his films.

It’s modern day Turkey in the town of Çannakale where 20 something Sinan Karasu (Dogu Demirkol) is returning home from completing his degree in Primary School Teaching. In the course of his studies he’s written a novel he hopes to get published and fulfill his dream of becoming a writer. But reality is soon to kick in: Will he do his national service, sit the exam for a teaching post, or work in his hometown?

His family live in a rundown apartment in a slummy tenement building, victims of his Father Idris’ (Murat Cemcir) degenerate gambling addiction. A source of tension for Sinan, his sister Yasemin (Asena Keskinci) and long suffering mother Asuman (Bennu Yildirimlar).

Outside of town, in a remote village, they are custodians of Idris’ father’s small shack and a pocket of land on a hillside. The land, now barren due to lack of water, is the dream in which Idris hopes to restore to a lush green hillside on the backs of an ill-fated project to dig a well into the rough soil. Under duress, Sinan joins his father in an attempt to remove a boulder at the bottom of the hole which is the point where this story takes root.

What’s instantly noticeable about Ceylan’s work here is that he has framed a story around a single family and, in particular, their eldest son, and through it traversed some hugely meaty topics around religion, literature, technology, sociopolitical commentary, humanity, and human fallibility.

The feature is deeply humane in its approach to its characters and, instead of 2 or 3 line exchanges to cover topics, Ceylan allows these conversations time to breathe, cultivating their arguments with more than several minutes devoted to them.

As with all great dramas, all of these characters are flawed, their decision making having profound impacts on those around them without their awareness. Yet Ceylan never opts for high melodrama here, he playfully nods at it then changes direction, but doesn’t give into an easy exit.

Cinematically, The Wild Pear Tree is also a love letter to Turkey – warts and all. From panoramic views of the countryside and the water’s edge, to the haunting beauty of the dilapidated and rusting impoverishment where we lay our scene, Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography is just as immersive as the dialogue in play.

Laced with gentile situational humour throughout, a willingness to let the drama unfold naturally and an overall sensitivity for its characters, The Wild Pear Tree is one of Ceylan’s finest achievements and shouldn’t be missed.