We may be in danger of taking Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the epic poet of Turkish cinema, for granted. His latest film The Wild Pear Tree landed a Cannes competition slot, but took its bow on the festival's closing weekend, when its best and brightest observers would have been packing up and heading out, and eventually came away prizeless; it opens in the UK at an especially competitive moment for foreign language cinema, merely a week after Hirokazu Kore-eda's Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters and on the very same day as Alfonso Cuarón's Venice prizewinner Roma makes its much-heralded theatrical debut. Ceylan himself hasn't made things any easier. Going beyond his lengthy 2012 triumph Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and his own (slightly attenuated) Palme winner Winter Sleep, Pear Tree clocks in at a leisurely three hours that encompasses missed encounters and many mini-dramas between conversations that go on for ten or twenty minutes down long and winding roads. It operates, in short, at something close to the mysterious and confounding pace of life, and we may still be more used to that in our novels or television series than we are in the cinema. Nevertheless, the film's deliberations are both deliberate and masterly: Ceylan's project here is to observe how projects come to fruition, how people turn out - and how time and lived experience prove an essential part of that process.
The protagonist, pointedly one of Ceylan's youngest yet, is Sinan (Dogu Demirkol), introduced leaving teaching college behind and returning to his hometown to see what awaits him next. He presents as a recognisable mix of youthful ideals, impatience and impracticality: his immediate goals are to ace his exams, publish the manuscript he touts as (gulp) "a quirky metafiction auto-novel", and then get the hell out of a backwater he sees as full of slowly rotting conformists and bigots. A judgier film would prove him right at every turn while smoothly ushering him - and us - towards an exit, but Ceylan, now approaching Renoir-level equanimity, instead sees the world in this village - a world any true novelist could spend years, if not decades, describing: with patience and sagacity, he notes how Sinan's loving family, his neighbours, the childhood sweetheart about to enter into a marriage of convenience, even the mayor who offers him publishing advice, are perfectly pleasant individuals with which to co-exist. Our boy, however, insists on charging headfirst into the world with unshakeable certainty, dismissing everything that came before him as irrelevant, and threatening to be a force as destructive as he is creative: "I'd drop an atom bomb on this place if I could," he spits down the phone to a pal while looking out at his (not untypically photogenic) new horizon. What Ceylan knows, and what he shows us, is that it doesn't take a bomb blast to alter the course and shape of our lives; the changing of the seasons and the rhythms of the everyday will likely do that for us anyway.
That changeability - of landscape, character, mood - is key to The Wild Pear Tree's success; it's what keeps the film not just engaging but rapturously alive over its marathon running time. Winter Sleep became bogged down by bedding in alongside a character long set in his ways, but here we're observing a getting of wisdom that is at once more haphazard and meandering (and thus truer to life) than those streamlined US teen movies that pass before us on a fortnightly basis. It remains a quietly subversive act to centre a movie on a young man who, that film notes, is at least a bit of a brat, and still has much to learn: Mia Hansen-Løve's excellent Eden of 2014 struck out in a similar direction, but - over two hours rather than three - that film didn't go quite as far, nor dig as deep, as Ceylan does here. It was a perfect lightning-strike of casting that led the director to the doughily promising Demirkol, who - somewhat like Miles Teller in Whiplash - occupies the screen like an unformed lump of clay: we're watching a character getting beaten into shape by the universe. (What shape that character will finally take is the source of the film's dramatic tension. From some angles, at certain moments, this kid resembles a Turkish Ryan Gosling; from others, the scowly young Sean Penn. He could be a dreamer or a fighter, and the scenarios Ceylan throws him into keep testing him out in different roles.)
What makes this a more cinematic and memorable coming-of-age drama than most is that Ceylan looks out at the landscape in ways his self-absorbed protagonist fails to, and sees the infinite possibilities lying ahead of this kid, the truth and beauty that could yet fall within his reach. That unforgettable scene in Anatolia where the murder investigation is stopped in its tracks by a beautiful chieftain's daughter serving tea is matched here by the early sequence in which Sinan's childhood sweetheart Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü) lets down her hair just as the sun breaks through the clouds and the wind rustles the trees shielding these secret lovers from the outside world: a fleeting moment - the young woman thereafter disappears (into what we take to be a loveless marriage) - but one that might well linger in any mind open enough to accommodate what-ifs. For Ceylan, change and adaptation are inextricably linked to the natural, and he sees something unhealthy - dangerous, even - in Sinan's rigid clinging to adolescent dogmas. (TVs in the background locate the action within Erdogan's Turkey; the personal and political become intertwined.) In the best case scenario, the film says, we shed our pretensions and illusions as the pear tree sheds its leaves, and push on with the useful work of being a functioning human being - and there should be nothing tragic about this. "When we learn we are not so important, why is our instinct to be hurt? Wouldn't it be better to treat it as an epiphany?": Sinan, who is not without intelligence and sensitivity, stumbles across this insight forty minutes into The Wild Pear Tree. But he - and the viewer - still has a long and rewarding ways to go.
The Wild Pear Tree opens in selected cinemas from today.