More verbose magnificence from Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who makes three-and-half hours whiz by with this comic portrait of an untreatable misanthrope.
Like a patient naturalist with his digital camera pre-primed, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is adept at spotting dyed-in-the-wool male misanthropes out there wandering the snowswept Anatolian plains. About Dry Grasses, his thrilling, engrossing epic of no-hold-barred parochial intellectualism might be seen as the last chapter of a trilogy, following 2013’s Winter Sleep and 2018 The Wild Pear Tree, about entrenched male malaise and the stifling social edicts of life in a small village.
Deniz Celiloglu’s Samet is a primary school teacher who clearly believes he’s wasting his potential in a sleepy burg where most of the population live in tin shacks and can barely afford clothes to keep them alive through the long and harsh winters. Yet he is avuncular and charming, and uses his superior intellect and complex worldview to imbue some of the brighter students with his rebellious spirit, while also gently kicking against a strictly conservative curriculum overseen by bureaucrats and idiots.
Through Samet, Ceylan portrays a type of aspirant bourgeois flanneur who both lacks the imagination to break free of his supposed domestic strictures, but is also too self-important to believe that happiness and contentment would ever be achievable, so why switch things up? His sense of honour is dented when a small incident at school leads to one of his favourite students, Ece Bagci’s mature-beyond-her-years Sevim, to make a complaint about him, and his bruised ego becomes the catalyst for a campaign of quiet aggression towards her.
From this set-up, you might view About Dry Grasses as a film that deals with the concept of “cancel culture”, as Ceylan appears to be suggesting that such spurious accusations seem to hold more weight in the current climate of fear and reprisal. Yet, this is more a study of Samet’s slow-cooked reaction to the incident, and how it does and doesn’t play out in other aspects of his life – most notably his gradual courtship with teacher and traumatised victim of a suicide bombing, Nuray (Merve Dizdar).
The film plays out as a series of labyrinthine conversations in rooms between people who are always able to keep their physical emotions in check. These armchair philosophers mine the deepest pits of despair and torment, but are somehow able to articulate their woes in the most gorgeously poetic and mellifluous way imaginable. Ceylan is an artist with a typewriter, and the screenplay for this one is something that should, by all rights, be hung in the Louvre, particularly a lengthy, existentially-inclined confab between Samet and Nuray in which both characters press and press and press one another for answers that remain tantalisingly illusive.
One thing that characterises this films against its direct predecessors is its relative levity, and the film draws humour out of one man’s journey to try and offload his apparently endless stores of bitterness and resentment. And yet, Samet never comes across like an antagonist, or a figure that Ceylan wants you to direct your own hatred towards. He is thoughtful, confident, confused and malicious, but also fragile and clearly very sad. Celiloglu’s carefully calibrated performance, combined with a screenplay which never descents to scurrilous signposting, makes Samet a person of endless literary intrigue – a monster and a martyr trapped inside the same body.
Published 20 May 2023
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