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- Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses arrives at exactly the right time, in the year of a closely-run, ideologically-charged Turkish election that has inevitably thrown up questions about the future course of the country.
Ceylan’s wordy, quietly unpredictable ninth feature is all about taking the pulse of the nation, albeit in more oblique fashion, as the travails of a teacher in the vast snowy landscape of Eastern Anatolia eventually open out into a portrait of Turkey being pulled in many different directions at once that modulates the intimate and the expansive with consummate ease. But while this topicality certainly gives the film’s cerebral, ever further spiralling ponderings added thrust, the mood Ceylan’s taps into also resonates beyond the current moment and the specific setting alike. Here and elsewhere, hope and weariness long since lie side by side.
Samet is an art teacher in the last year of a compulsory placement at a village school and already dreams of being relocated to somewhere more urban, which perhaps explains his only half-hearted interest in Nuray. She also teaches art at a larger school in the nearest town, having returned to her home region after losing her leg in a suicide bombing, and quickly attracts the attention of Samet’s colleague and housemate Kenan.
Samet appears well-liked by the local community, teaching colleagues and pupils, although he’s not above favouritism, as expressed by the small mirror he gives to the giggly Sevet, a girl from one of his classes who hangs on his every word. Upon a routine bag inspection, the mirror is discovered along with a love letter; Samet’s mishandling of this obviously delicate situation both reveals the more unpleasant sides of his character as well as the precariousness of someone in his position in the current climate. When he and Kenan are accused of inappropriate behaviour, it seems just a matter of time before the whole situation explodes.
As has become the norm in Ceylan’s recent films, the plot advances less via action than across dialogue scenes that would feel totally classical if not for their length, with the focus firmly on telling over showing, aside from the scenes of the snow-covered landscape that break up all the talk like the blank pages separating chapters of a novel.
Collecting texture and nuance are the order of the day here, as secondary characters and references to the many diverse folds of Turkish society abound. In the aftermath of the accusation, all the tetchy, hugely detailed, ethically-minded conversations between different constellations of Samet, Kenan, the headteacher and the board of education start to feel as exhausting for the viewer as they must be for the characters, also suggesting that this restrained rural take on cancel culture and its procedures is going to be the film’s primary concern.
But this plotline unexpectedly recedes into the background once Samet sees Nuray beginning to respond to Kenan’s interest and reconsiders his feelings for her. Samet and Nuray’s subsequent all-night conversation may be just as protracted, but varies greatly in tone, tenor and presentation from the previous ones, as if to underline the various different functions dialogue can perform.
As Nuray’s left-leaning, action-oriented ethos rubs up against Samet’s solipsistic desire to merely complain from the sidelines, two contrasting approaches as to how one should navigate life in this “land of unending setbacks” come into focus, as does an ambivalent, yet still deeply felt romantic connection between two wary individuals, macro and micro, individual and collective perfectly intertwined. This in turn forges a link back the opening plotline, as Samet at once embodies a specific teacher in a specific place and a general attitude towards how the youth of today are seen and treated by those responsible for guiding them into the world; a thin line divides affection from control.
As the presentation of Samet and Nurey’s talks progressively deviates from the traditional shot-countershot set-up of the previous scenes, it’s just one example of how Ceylan creates a veneer of formal conventionality in order to splinter it on occasion to exhilarating, thematically cogent effect.
The photos of different villagers taken by Samet also sporadically appear across the film as hyperreal portraits of social archetypes that jut out obliquely from the narrative, just as the vision of the world Nurey seeks to capture in her own pictures seen hanging on the wall in her house is suddenly conjured up on the soundtrack. And the moment when one character doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as actually step out of the plot and onto the film set is both further evidence of Ceylan’s formal audacity as well as a fitting reminder that the world on screen and the one we inhabit are always touching – a sentiment as hopeful as it is ambivalent. When Nurey asks Samet what he’s doing for the world, she’s also asking us.