‘About Dry Grasses’ Review: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Latest Is a Trying Turkish Talkathon With a Few Gripping Highlights

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues to explore his homeland’s teeming dichotomies — city/rural, secularism/faith, individualism/tradition and so forth — in About Dry Grasses, his latest Cannes competition entrant, which revolves around schoolteachers in a remote rural community. Running true to recent form (see 2014 Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep and 2018’s Cannes-entrant The Wild Pear Tree), despite the setting in contemporary Anatolia, this latest work nevertheless plays like an adaptation of some lost, weighty 19th-century Russian novel of ideas beloved by mid-20th existentialists and largely forgotten until Ceylan repurposed it.

Of course, that’s not the actual case, and the script was written by Ceylan himself, his wife and frequent collaborator Erbu Ceylan and Akin Aksu. All the same, the screenplay is distinctly opaque, despite the huge chunks of philosophical dialogue and debate it delivers. The film is edited in a seemingly deliberately raggedy style, with sudden abrupt cuts and jarring ellipses. There’s a single, WTF fourth-wall-breaking pseudo-Bertolt Brechtian moment that slides away without explanation, and a ponderous voiceover narration that jumps in at the end to try and create some sense of conclusion.

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All that only serves to make it even harder to divine what Ceylan wants us to think of Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), the film’s tetchy, highly dislikable schoolteacher anti-hero, who has been posted by the national education system to a remote Eastern village with a large Kurdish subpopulation. Are we to see him as an object of ironic derision with his patronizing attitude toward the locals? (At one point he actually tells a classroom of eighth graders that none of them will ever make interesting art themselves and will spend their lives planting potatoes and sugar beets.) Or are we supposed to see him as the ill-treated victim of minxy schoolgirl Sevim (Ece Bagci), who nearly gets him fired with allegations of inappropriate contact (which, based on the film’s evidence, are perhaps exaggerated but not exactly untrue)? Perhaps we’re meant to choose a little from column A and column B and see Samet as a deeply flawed and fallible figure living in strange times, but viewers’ mileage will vary hugely, and female viewers are likely to read him as a grade-A tool.

At first sight, he’s doesn’t seem that bad as we observe him returning after the winter break for a new semester, bantering with his housemate Kenan (Musab Ekici), also a teacher at the school where Samet works, and their other colleagues before classes start. But there’s something iffy about the way he gives Sevim, a giggly kid and obviously a teacher’s pet, a small present in the corridor on the way to class. During the subsequent lesson, another student calls Samet out for always choosing Sevim and her friend to answer questions in class, but Samet shuts him down.

However, later, when senior staff perform a routine bag check looking for contraband like cigarettes or weapons, an unaddressed love letter is found in Sevim’s bag. Somehow, everyone knows it’s meant to be about Samet, who manages to get the letter back, saying he’ll return it to Sevim. But when she comes asking for it, he pretends he tore it up, a weird power play that the youngster sees right through with her cool, clear, hard stare.

A billet doux that falls into the wrong hands is not the only quasi-19th-century novelettish device on hand here; there’s also a love triangle of sorts — if love isn’t too strong a word for it — that forms between Samet, the more conventional Kenan and a teacher at another school named Nuray (Merve Dizdar, an incandescent presence and the best thing about the film). Samet is set up on a blind date with Nuray but, thinking he’s too good for her because she lost a leg under circumstances explained later, he subtly manipulates the situation so that she and Kenan might get together instead.

But then he finds out that Nuray could easily get herself transferred to Istanbul, the posting of Samet’s dreams, because of her disability. This suddenly makes her much more attractive to Samet, especially since he’s ticked off with Kenan and blames him somehow for everything when both of the young men are accused of inappropriate conduct at work.

Everything comes to a head when Samet manages to block Kenan from coming to a previously discussed group dinner with Nuray and shows up by himself with flowers, intent on seducing her. The scene where they debate activism (Nuray is left-wing; Samet quasi-libertarian or just selfish), community engagement and civics, and the meaning of life is one hell of a bit of dialectical theatre, filmed with verve as the two characters ping-pong opinions back and forth at one another. Nuray clearly has a formidable intellect, but the recent loss of her leg has knocked her confidence hugely and lowered her chances of marriage in what is still an extremely patriarchal society — however much she herself has moved on from such gender-normative thinking. Dizdar’s expressive face shows every passing cloud of thought during the extended, fateful scene, and Celiloglu plays accompaniment for her beautifully throughout. His, too, is a strong performance, even if the character remains, as mentioned previously, a grade-A tool throughout.

After this dramatic high point, the movie goes downhill into predictable territory, finally landing in a soggy quagmire of talkiness and would-be profundity expressed in voiceover at the end. But at least the visuals are nice, with Ceylan’s signature use of snow-capped landscape and wide-angled lensing to the fore.

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