Earlier this year, we witnessed German filmmaker Christian Petzold look into the character of an entitled jerk. His film, though more personal and intimate to a specific person, also took a considerate look at what truly makes this person become the way they are. While we were left to take a basic glimpse at the central character, Petzold humanized him in spite of the obvious reasons for not liking him. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ‘About Dry Grasses’ takes it a notch up and lets its central character have a sort of arc that doesn’t just define him but the socio-political climate around him. The 3-hour and 17-minute long film carefully maneuvers you through character moments that seethingly allow you to witness how a character breaks and transforms into a version of himself. A version that would feel loathsome if there wasn’t the meditative and languid look at the elements that led him to become that.
When we first meet Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu), he feels like a jovial person whose only gripe is with the system that doesn’t allow him to take a teacher’s position in his native Istanbul. He returns to the snow-laden lands of a remote village somewhere in Anatolia. He is an art teacher who is in his fourth year of compulsory teaching posting, and the location’s picturesque beauty is only worth his camera, which he occasionally takes out to get some sense of relief. The rest of the time, the biting winter dribbles through to each person living there, isolating them from not just themselves but every single basic development that happens in the world. Samet is aware that before people in the village can even think of better things, they need to be open to accepting that there’s a world that lies beyond their conceivable perception.
So, while it’s not okay for all the other faculty members to engage in a loving conversation with the pupil at the school, he feels it is okay to give gifts to his favorite Sevim (Ece Bagci) – a young girl he has a sort of liking for. That is until a love letter that Sevim must have addressed to Samet is discovered. It completely changes the narrative of Samet being smug about the conditions in the place to something more concrete and personal. Ceylan offers us no easy leeway to the secretes in the story – Was the letter really addressed to him? What made Sevim complain to the authorities about Samet? Does Samet exhibit the behavior of a groomer? Should we loathe him or be part of his journey?
Now, if the film was just about a mere sexual abuse allegation and the aftermath, Ceylan’s approach would feel overly familiar. However, by introducing the character of Kenan (Musab Ekici), who is Samet’s roommate and a fellow teacher who gets rounded up in the allegation, About Dry Grasses dives into the internal politics that lead to the birth of a nihilist. Kenan and Samet develop a bond with Nuray (Merve Dizdar) – a fellow teacher who has better facilities because of her disability, which was due to her political activism. However, when Nuray starts favoring Kenan over Samet (who was the one who introduced the two), the dynamics again shift for him. With the self-loathing that he already possessed, added to the allegation that was frowned upon him, and the jealousy that he brought on himself, Samet becomes someone else entirely.
About Dry Grasses, like most of Ceylan’s films from Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep (2014) to his masterful Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) to his latest The Wild Pear Tree (2018), is as much about the disillusionment of believing in something, as it is about the peril nature of existence itself. Much of the film is about isolation and loneliness, and the Turkish filmmaker makes sure that he shows the harshness of living in spite of setting it against the most beautiful backdrop you can imagine.
There are typical Ceylan static and extremely long shots, either laden with silence or introspective dialogues, that sometimes go on for more than ten minutes. But, with About Dry Grasses, he briefly takes us into a meta moment that only extends the power of his storytelling to something unimaginable. The film becomes as much about the power dynamics that shift between people as it becomes about living in a country where your existence is constantly checked upon or more penetrably repressed. The fact that this is a story about the blurred lines between what’s socially acceptable and what’s expected from a human makes it one of a kind of cinema that somehow ends up being poetic to a tee.
The contrast between the only two seasons that these people see and the change in the lightning from the expensive wide shots of the landscape to the dimply lit interiors of these cramped homes alone speak more than the culmination of some stories. The aftereffects of watching a Ceylan film where the antihero is our own point of view to his world are still the same, but About Dry Grasses’ actual effect lies on the remnants of leaving these stories not have a concrete end; their lives still shattered, unfocused and full of despair, and no grand meta-moment in the cracks of cinema can fix that.