The pastures in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s luminous new film are only dry at the very end. Save for that brief summery coda, the landscape in About Dry Grasses remains a snowcapped immensity where prairies are ringed by belittling peaks, people stand out as calligraphic silhouettes, and snow falls so heavy as to blot out everything. It’s as if it fell “to make oblivion possible,” observes art teacher Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), and in a film populated with wanderers trying to start anew, those words echo like a prayer. Geographically and thematically close to the rest of Ceylan’s oeuvre, the film finds him working once again in a remote corner of Eastern Anatolia and revisiting leitmotifs in his preferred mode: long, talky symposiums that pit characters against each other in games of verbal fencing. But none of it feels like a retreading. If anything, About Dry Grasses is both a distillation of Ceylan’s recurrent tropes and a purification of his style, a film made of conversations that remain explosive even at their most forbidding, shivering with a sense of fluid emotions constantly at play.
It’s been four years since Samet first landed on Icesu, a village so tiny everyone knows each other, and the thirty-something has since turned into a beloved honorary resident. “Teacher of teachers,” a colleague salutes him, though Samet makes no mystery around his urge to pack up and leave for good. Understandably so. As photographed by Cevahir Sahin and Kürsat Üresin (making Grasses the first Ceylan film in a while not shot by regular DP Gökhan Tiryaki), the hamlet is a vision straight out of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, a smattering of dilapidated houses watched over by a military outpost from where gunshots reverberate in the dead of night and tanks dog an enemy that remains invisible, yet routinely evoked over teas. (Again and again characters discuss the Kurdish question to a degree that makes this one of Ceylan’s most explicitly political films yet.)
Like countless other teachers in Turkey, Samet did not pick Icesu of his own volition, but was dispatched to the East for his compulsory civil service before a transfer that will hopefully slingshot him to Istanbul. “From the day I arrived, all I thought about was leaving,” he tells local pals. It is only after an incident at the elementary school where he teaches, however, that his contempt for Icesu and its people erupts full-force. His favorite student, eighth grader Sevim (Ece Bagci), accuses Samet of inappropriate behavior once he refuses to hand her a love letter confiscated during a class inspection. Was it addressed to him? Co-written by the director, his wife Ebru Ceylan, and Akin Aksu, Grasses leaves that deliberately ambiguous, and the juncture is all the more shattering for its different plausible readings.
It’s a twist that promises to corral Grasses into the same suspenseful terrain of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, but the scandal is hastily buried by Samet’s superiors. Still, the film treats it like a light switch. Introduced as a benign, magnanimous presence––everyone’s favorite teacher––Samet quickly morphs into a vindictive tyrant, and Celiloglu, who’s onscreen for nearly every shot, captures that transformation with magnetic, sinister force. Eyes narrowed and lips stretched, he oozes anger, turning each subsequent encounter with Sevim into belittling and explosive exchanges. When a friend introduces him to fellow teacher Nuray (Merle Dizdar), a local young woman who lost a leg during a terrorist bombing, the script doesn’t posit her as someone who can rescue Samet from his misanthropy so much as challenge him. Grasses is the portrait of a man in the midst of an existential and spiritual crisis, which the director stages as a kind of vivisection, dissecting his growingly despondent protagonist with unflinching precision, one long, confrontative chat at a time.
It’s a hallmark of Ceylan’s artistry that those exchanges are as strongly staged as they are dramatic. Here as in another of the director’s Anatolia-set dramas, Winter Sleep, conversations are the bedrock. But no chat is equal; each carries its own import and demands its distinct visual set-up, depending on how strong a challenge they mount against Samet, or the kind of impact these words have on him. Whenever the teacher sits with a couple of friends from Icesu for some nighttime drinking, for instance, Ceylan favors medium-long shots that frame characters at a distance, with Sahin and Üresin turning those rendezvous into Georges de La Tour paintings, candles and lamps bathing faces in pearly light. But when Samet joins Nuray for dinner, in a later segment that stands as Grasses‘ centerpiece, and the date becomes a confrontative tête-à-tête, Ceylan captures it as a succession of shot-reverse. Not only is Samet here involved in the discussion; he’s being judged, attacked, needled into an admission of moral failure. This isn’t a conversation so much as a battle, and the director stages it like so. One of the greatest mysteries behind Ceylan’s cinema is how his talk-heavy sprawls manage to escape the aloofness of the chamber dramas they so often unspool as. Grasses is another scintillating example of that paradox, a film in which chats do not unfurl so much as detonate.
Midway through the film’s three hours, a character quotes Ancient Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me.” Ceylan’s reading of the maxim is a largely nihilistic one, and truly is Grasses drenched in pessimism. (When a character recalls that he once helped a neighbor and the man shot his dog in return, a stunned Samet asks why. “Because he’s human,” comes the matter-of-fact reply.) But it still works toward a soul-stirring epiphany, which Samet experiences over a harrowing final sequence that sees him schlepping up a sun-scorched hill. What the young man understands on those dry fields––to recognize the beauty and importance of things that are seldom noticed; to find solace in one’s alienation––is the kind of lesson Ceylan’s films all seem to have worked toward. The way it lands here is nothing short of miraculous.
About Dry Grasses premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.