A Turkish master gives us Passacaglia in a Wild Pear Tree

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      Starring Dogu Demirkol. In Turkish, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      In films like Distant and Winter Sleep, Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan showed his instinct for ferreting out the humour and the sadness in strained relationships set against unforgiving landscapes. He pushes this even further in The Wild Pear Tree. And, at more than three hours and taking place over several years, it feels more like a classic novel than a movie, even of the art-house variety.

      If this saga of a young man’s search for meaning feels like a literary throwback, modern chaos keeps intruding on the reveries of Sinan Karasu (Dogu Demirkol), a slouchy 20-something who has just written his first book and can’t get it published. He’s finished his teacher training but worries about being posted in Turkey’s rural regions. (People mention “going east” the way Germans once talked about being sent to the Russian front.)

      The youngster is in uncomfortable thrall to his father (Murat Cemcir), himself once a respected educator in the port town of Çanakkale, where he (and the director) grew up. Now he’s a local joke, thanks to gambling debts and too much time spent at his own father’s crumbling farm. For years, Dad’s been digging a well that never yields water—a metaphor for all striving here, especially the young man’s attempts to find expression through the antiquated mode of books.

      The film’s episodic structure primarily consists of long, highly detailed conversations between two or three people. The elusive nature of art, struggles against conformity, and the ultimate meaning (if any) of religion are among the topics argued about. Sinan’s knowledge of women is notably childlike, and he manages to insult people he asks for help. If writing doesn’t work out, he admits, he could just join the riot police, like one of his college friends who couldn’t find a job.

      Ceylan sets this chatter against ever-shifting backgrounds in differently hued seasons; we are aware of the beauty and depredations of the characters’ surroundings, but they are not. Some images are unforgettable, as when Sinan pokes his head out of the side panel of a gigantic Trojan horse—built for a Brad Pitt movie shot in the area, but now kept as a tourist attraction near sites of several famous battles.

      The director’s approach is largely austere, though, with repeated snippets from Bach’s Passacaglia very occasionally sweetening the scenes. This suggests influences from Pasolini, who depended on Bach, and Bergman, who counted on silence. But for viewers with the patience to hear him out, Ceylan has a voice like no other.