Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest work, “Ahlat Ağacı” (The Wild Pear Tree), received a 15-minute standing ovation at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival last weekend.
“The Turkish director’s unhurried, magnificently acted film follows a bumptious young writer who returns home to face bittersweet truths,” The Guardian daily wrote.
Returning home, here, means a curious look at the countryside from an intellectual’s point of view. Like many 19th century Russian novels, since Turkey only urbanized heavily after the 1980s, Ceylan once again explores life in the countryside, delving into the rural roots of Turkish society.
It was the last piece shown at Cannes, before a jury of renowned film authorities, and although critically acclaimed, returned to Turkey without an award.
His last film, “Kış Uykusu” (Winter Sleep), had garnered the big prize, the Palme D’or, at the festival in 2014. Ceylan has been a regular participant since 1995, starting with his first short movie, “Koza,” and has been awarded eight times so far.
When Ceylan, aka NBC, was named best director in 2008 by a Cannes jury, his acceptance remarks dedicating the award “to my beautiful and lonely country, which I love passionately” became a phenomenon in Turkey.
In his films, loneliness often unfolds into uniqueness.
NBC’s style has developed significantly throughout his career in terms of cinematic language, from personal, silent and picturesque to more dialogical, structured and eventful.
NBC’s earlier works were an exploration of the director’s personal life as he gave lead roles to his father, his wife and even himself, resembling autobiographical accounts.
With “Uzak” (Distant), which was screened in 2002, however, he started to make statements about bigger issues such as the existential crisis of a pseudo-intellectual figure, Mahmut, whose distant relative, Yusuf, comes from the countryside and unintentionally challenges his urban identity.
Ceylan’s family drama plus a political power story, “Üç Maymun” (Three Monkeys), considered a new peak in his style, was riveting and challenging from a more socio-political point of view.
After that, NBC began to explore daily life in Central Anatolia, with his highly respected “Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da” (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia). It was a whodunnit story, a bit different from his style, surprising the audience with its cast, among whom was a famous Kurdish comedian, Yılmaz Erdoğan. He continued that tradition in his last movie, selecting two young comedians, Murat Cemcir and Doğu Demirkol.
Besides being a survey of the human soul, Ceylan’s films started to delve into rural life, depicting the stillness of the vast steppes and easily crumbling relationships.
In “Kış Uykusu” he drew on Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov, making critical statements about the petite bourgeoisie. As long dialogues and strange liaisons carried the plot to a climax, the theatrical skills of leading actors Haluk Bilginer and Demet Akbağ succeeded in holding audience’s attention.
However, it was a challenge to adapt Chekhov’s short story “The Wife,” which includes a wealth of inner thoughts and descriptions, to the screen.
Following the success of “Kış Uykusu” at the Cannes Film Festival, NBC once again was the talk of Turkey. Yet, as always, the box office numbers were low, attracting only around 300,000 people during its 16-week run.
Fortunately, Ceylan did not care about the box office, or even the commercial standards of a film. His films were considered to be absurdly long, overwhelmingly artistic, mostly boring and depressing accounts by the Turkish audience.
Still, one can find implicit ridicule of Turkish popular culture in NBC’s films, which have always shown an awareness of the general conditions of society.
That is why when asked by an American news website whether he would consider directing a film beyond Turkey’s borders, his answer was, “I don’t think so.”