Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review (FCEPR 2023): ‘About Dry Grasses’ is an Immaculate Character Study


Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writers: Akin Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Stars: Deniz Celiloglu, Merve Dizdar, Musab Ekici

Synopsis: A young teacher hopes to be appointed to Istanbul after mandatory duty at a small village. After a long time waiting he loses all hope of escaping from this gloomy life. However, his colleague Nuray helps him to regain perspective.


Demanding both in its multi-layered subject matter and lengthy canvas, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses is a verbose yet thought-provoking character study on broken people and their means of expression towards a world that has “betrayed” them, containing two of the best dialogue set-pieces I have seen this year in its piercing third act. 

Is Nuri Bilge Ceylan the modern version of Andrei Tarkovsky? This question has seemed to pop up quite often when discussing the Turkish filmmaker’s oeuvre, more so after the release of his 2018 feature, The Wild Pear Tree. Ceylan has commented on Tarkovsky’s work before; his experiences watching Solaris and Mirror have changed from being baffled to naming them some of the best films of all time, specifically the latter, which he has watched more than twenty times. Although plenty of aspects separate these two cinematic maestros, the comparison is quite applicable. The contemplative nature of Ceylan matches with Tarkovsky’s doleful narratives. While Tarkovsky often uses sci-fi and surrealist elements to move forward his stories and create a dreamy and melancholic haze, Ceylan constructs his own with two main ingredients: silence in its atmosphere to cause unease and a verbose screenplay. 

The two create lengthy, complex, poetic pictures that remain in your head for days, weeks, and even months after watching them. That’s what unites Ceylan and Tarkovsky – curating melancholy through a beautiful landscape and awe-inspiring technique. And if you weren’t convinced about the comparison yet, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest, About Dry Grasses, will do so, as it is yet another philosophical and immaculate character study that unpacks questions about belief, toxic masculinity, and the fatigue of hoping for a better life. The film centers around Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu), a thirty-year-old art teacher who wants to move from his current position. He’s currently in the small town of Icesu – where everybody knows everybody – and has his mind set on Istanbul, a place he deems would bring him better opportunities. 

He isn’t in that village by choice; like most of its residents, he is there serving a mandatory service. In his case, Samet is teaching children at a secondary school. He hopes that what comes after his limited stay in the remote town of Eastern Anatolia will be better, as he quotes early on: “From the day I arrived, all I thought about was leaving.” Samet longs for the days when he can freely roam around in a more prominent (and prosperous) place. At least his work proceeds him, as he’s beloved by everybody. They hold him in high regard even though he states out loud that he doesn’t want to be there. Hence, we see plenty of scenes where he’s passing the time by any means necessary, whether drinking tea and eating cheese pastries or taking photographs of the villagers and plains. 

There’s a palpable feeling of emptiness oozing from Samet’s core whenever he is by his lonesome or quiet. He isn’t hopeless or completely shattered mentally. But Samet constantly yearns for a better life instead of embracing what’s right in front of him. It keeps him at a distance from his co-workers and the townsfolk. The only people he seems to have faith in are his students, precisely his favorite one, Sevim (Ece Bağcı). When they are on-screen together, you notice his change of personality. Samet opens up to her about every question she has, sometimes overstepping his boundaries and her privacy, which paves the way for an incident at the school. Sevim accuses Samet and fellow teacher Kenan (Musab Ekici) of inappropriate behavior because he wouldn’t return her love letter, which was confiscated during an inspection. 

We see him erupting, forging a nihilistic attitude that holds his contempt for Icesu on his shoulders. Celiloğlu creates a multilayered performance in which he balances nihilism and angst with the self-assured persona we saw during the first moments and self-righteousness. He has a challenging role in this film, and Celiloğlu manages that tethering of emotions with a ton of proficiency. His performance feels natural and calculated – as the dialogue sequences arrive one after the other, you sense each emotional note from his expressions. It is hard to state how complex his role is and how well he manages it without missing a single beat. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, alongside co-writers Ebru Ceylan (his wife) and Akın Aksu, leaves the audience questioning whether or not Sevim’s love letter is addressed to Samet. 

This specific and important detail is left ambiguous because the film doesn’t focus on that part of the narrative. About Dry Grasses focuses more on the reaction and shattering realizations of belief, culpability, responsibility, and loneliness. The letter arrives as a kill-switch in the means of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. But it’s more of a segment that helps the rest of the film and its ideas come to fruition. With this note, we learn the harsh reality and darkness of Samet’s boiling solace. Through the letter and his connection with other characters, we see a deeper glance into his psyche and ideology. Two specific people in his life will provide us with this exploration of a love triangle between Kenan and a teacher from another school, Nuray (Cannes Best Actress-winner Merve Dizdar). 

It isn’t your typical encounter of lovelorn souls but rather a psychological duel. She isn’t playing the role of a savior who rescues Samet from his solemnity. Nuray will challenge him in all regards, Ceylan creating plenty of lengthy confrontative dialogue set-pieces – two of which are some of the best written of the year. Each conversation is like a different stage in Samet’s existential and spiritual crisis. His anti-hero persona, which Ceylan applies to his most interesting characters, is questioned in ways he didn’t expect to; Samet slowly realizes that there’s solace within his alienation deep inside. During the last act of the film, Nuray and Samet have a thought-provoking and profound discussion on politics, negligence, conviction, and everything in between. And in one moment of silence, something strange happens. 

Samet becomes so enraptured with the psychological toll this chat is having on his mind that he needs to take a breather. He does so via a fourth-wall break that’s disruptive and piercing. It removes the magic of cinema to showcase the effects of the lines not only on the character but also on the actor playing him. The coating of fiction is removed for a second so the audience and Celiloğlu can clear their minds. It is nothing short of brilliant; I have never seen such a thing come out of nowhere, leaving everyone in the cinema speechless. That moment in About Dry Grasses caused everyone to gather and become entranced with the lyrical mind of Ceylan. Despite its three-hour-and-a-half runtime, you never feel the length of the film’s canvas. 

You are so intrigued by these characters and their ways of thinking that you would want to see more of their personal conversations. This is a pessimistic picture with occasional comedic language that rips apart the essence of a fractured male ego. About Dry Grasses is a dissertation on many topics told through a dialogue-heavy and demanding procedure we are accustomed to seeing in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s filmography. The Turkish filmmaker creates a web of complex yet beautifully humanistic and elegiac sequences. He is a master director of his class, deserving of every inch of praise given to him. 

Grade: A

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