THE STORY – 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 a perspective.
THE CAST – Deniz Celiloğlu, Merve Dizdar, Musab Ekici & Ece Bağcı
THE TEAM – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Director/Writer), Ebru Ceylan & Akın Aksu (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 197 Minutes
While he may not light up the red carpet or command the headlines like many of his contemporaries, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan stands above (almost) all of them thanks to his impressive qualities of storytelling, which have been justly rewarded over the years, bringing him international recognition and respect. He’s received the Cannes runner-up Grand Prix on two separate occasions for 2003’s “Distant” and 2011’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the Cannes award for Best Director for 2008’s “Three Monkeys,” and the coveted Palme d’Or in 2014 for “Winter Sleep.” With Merve Dizdar picking up the Best Actress prize earlier this year for his latest film, “About Dry Grasses,” it gave the film an added initial boost to be discovered for the gem it is despite its daunting runtime. However, much like his 2018 film, “The Wild Pear Tree,” and the others previously mentioned in his filmography, one only needs to surrender themselves to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s vision, talent, and guidance, and they’ll be as richly rewarded as his films are.
“About Dry Grasses” is another one of Ceylan’s odes to the works of Anton Chekhov, placing a male protagonist within various scenes/forms of isolation from his friends as they discuss pressing issues of philosophy and modern-day Turkish politics. Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), an art teacher approaching forty from Istanbul, is mandatorily stationed in the remote and wintry Anatolian village he despises. As if his punishment wasn’t already cruel enough, he arrives by bus and must trudge the rest of the way through the frozen tundra. Like all the teachers, Samet lives in one of the tiny cottages scattered around the village, sharing it with another faculty member, Kenan (Musab Ekici). The students – a mix of several ethnicities, religions, and races – drip in from all the surrounding neighborhoods. Samet doesn’t have much respect for his students, nor does he believe any of them will become more than the common folk they already are. However, one student, Sevim (Ece Bağcı), has earned his favor. He always calls on her in his class and brings her secret gifts, never taking kindly to anyone, pointing out how she is clearly his favorite student.
During the film’s first hour, it’s hard to see why Samet hates this place so much or why many of the villagers don’t take to him too kindly. Ceylan lets most of these scenes play out in a single take, slowly leading you into this mundane world. The longer each scene goes on, the more you realize that much of the interactions between Samet and everyone else is a charade. Co-written by Ceylan with his usual partners, wife Ebru Ceylan and Akin Aksu, the dialogue seems surface-level, with conversations mainly consisting of people describing their daily routines and outlooks on their current situation, but there are several clues to the past and future that become unearthed the more you listen to what is actually being discussed beneath the surface.
The second act starts with two incidents, each taking Samet down a morally winding psychological journey. A student has accused both him and Kenan of inappropriate conduct. Neither the accuser nor the reason for the charges are specific, angering Samet’s idyllic view of himself and leading him down a path of suspicion and mental unwinding despite his hopes for self-improvement. He lashes out at his students, especially Sevim, who he suspects is behind all this but can’t prove for sure. The more he deals with this ever-growing problem, the more it seems Samet is showing his true self to those around him.
The other occurrence is a love triangle between Samet, Kenan, and an English teacher from a nearby school named Nuray (Dizdar). Samet and Nuray initially have no romantic chemistry, mostly because Samet thinks he’s too sophisticated for her, not to mention his subtle, ableist attitude towards her for having only one leg and misogynistic views of her as a woman. But he takes a new interest in her once Nuray drops the hint that she could easily be transferred to Istanbul (where Samet previously went to school) because of her lost leg, thus triggering his insecurities all over again.
Between Samet’s relationships with both Sevim and Nuray, Ceylan explores the dynamics of power and perspective in ways that are wholly fascinating on a humanistic level. There’s not exactly a predator vs. prey connection between these characters, but Samet also never allows for an equal footing between him and anyone else. He also does this without seeming like the bad guy (at least to himself), with his narcissism blinding his ability to sympathize with others.
Spending every moment with Samet and his musings can become quite a chore despite the seemingly effortless, captivating work from Deniz Celiloğlu. The more scenes are stacked on top of each other, the more you wish for an intermission or, at the very least, another detour into the picturesque beauty of the surroundings. There’s a scene near the end where Samet and Nuray debate about many important sociological issues over an extensive dining room table conversation. Ceylan abandons the medium-shot long take here, opting for a nearly fifteen-minute sequence of shot/reverse shot. It’s a gabfest that puts you through the intellectual wringer, only to be concluded with a breathtaking fourth wall break that comes and goes without initial rhyme or reason but, upon further reflection, reveals a deeper thematic introspection into what Ceylan’s true intentions are with this story.
The performances by the central trio (or quartet when you include Bağcı) illuminate the cold, barren nights of the western Anatolia village. Each must play two versions of their character: the concept seen through the eyes of others and the more nuanced version that is only seen by the camera in brief glimpses. Dizdar’s Best Actress win was seen as a surprise considering the bevy of talent displayed at the Cannes Film Festival earlier year. However, the unshowiness of her brilliant work and Ceylan’s refusal to make her character Samet’s savior make it powerful, compelling, and a distinct highlight amongst a film filled with many standout elements.
While many all over the world still have their mouths agape over the length of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” (206 minutes), no one batted an eye at the 197-minute treatment given to “About Dry Grasses.” Like late-career Scorsese, Ceylan has always used his epic runtimes to dig deep into the contemplative nature of his characters and their environment. There’s a sense that you have not just watched these characters for 180+ minutes; you have lived this portion of their lives right alongside them.
Unlike “Winter Sleep” or “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the lengthy runtime for “About Dry Grasses” may not be entirely justified upon a single viewing. Like any Ceylan film, patience is the number one thing required of the viewer. Every line must be hung on to like it were Clark Gable’s final reading from “Gone with the Wind;” every idea must be tucked away and analyzed; every image must be scanned corner to corner to appreciate all the carefully laid out details. There are no accidents here. Every decision from Ceylan is deliberate. It’s a physically and psychologically demanding task that has been handsomely rewarded in the past and yet, some might argue, doesn’t totally come together this time. To be fair, Ceylan has only raised the bar for himself to meteoric heights over the years through his consistent output, so a slight misstep still deserves attention and, yes, praise, even if it doesn’t quite stack up to his previous works.
Like many great movies of this length, “About Dry Grasses” demands to be seen multiple times before a complete opinion can be fully conveyed. But unlike many great films, the initial watch doesn’t always incite the motivation to muster up the courage to revisit it sometime down the road. Samet remains an unlikable character to follow for three-plus hours despite career-best work from Celiloğlu, and some of Ceylan’s decisions remain perplexing no matter how beautifully framed and lit they might be. However distant the memory of “About Dry Grasses” may become, the meditative thoughts it brings to the table, much like the stunning aforementioned table talk sequence between Samet and Nuray, are worth the literal and metaphorical price of admission.