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film review
  • About Dry Grasses
  • Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  • Written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan and Akin Aksu
  • Starring Deniz Celiloglu, Merve Dizdar and Musab Ekici
  • Classification N/A; 197 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres March 1

Critic’s Pick

A desolate, forbidding landscape. A hero who may not be worth rooting for. Dialogue laced with forbidden politics and sexual desire. And an epic run time designed to toy with the limits of the human attention span. This isn’t Dune: Part Two, but rather another, altogether different kind of cinematic masterpiece that is opening in theatres the same weekend: Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses.

Another tale of chilly discontent beamed from the loneliest corners of Turkey, the latest film from Ceylan (Winter Sleep, The Wild Pear Tree) follows the cynical fortysomething Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), a schoolteacher stuck in a snowy village in eastern Anatolia where there’s not much to do other than feebly mould the minds of “future beet farmers,” and spend time taking photographs with his primitive digital camera. When he’s not longing for a transfer to cosmopolitan Istanbul, Samet is drinking tea and debating local affairs with his roommate and colleague, Kenan (Musab Ekici), and not-too-subtly encouraging the affections of Sevim (Ece Bagci), a 14-year-old teacher’s pet who gets caught with a love letter that may or may not be addressed to Samet.

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The discovery of that forbidden document inside the classroom during an apparently routine contraband search – echoing Turkish politics’ appetite for subversion at any level – sets off a chain reaction that nobody in the school is able to appropriately reckon with. This all leads Samet and Kenan down a bureaucratic odyssey that subtly dovetails with the pair’s growing, oddly triangulated friendship with Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a fellow teacher whose activism sets something afire in both men’s hearts, in very different ways.

Structured like a quietly grand novel, subtle and elliptical, Ceylan’s film unfolds with Chekhovian grace and a cutting understanding of character. Through a half-dozen scenes of intricately choreographed dialogue – long, looping conversations whose naturalism belies their careful construction – the film builds a remarkably real, often uncomfortable world of thorny men and prickly philosophies. After an hour spent positioning him as a progressive intellectual undeserving of his rural plight, the film upends Samet to reveal the cynical snob that he is, while recontextualizing Kenan’s relative what-me-worry innocence and Sevim’s adolescent POV.

Open this photo in gallery:

Deniz Celiloğlu, left, and Musab Ekici in a scene from About Dry Grasses.The Associated Press

And Ceylan isn’t above having fun with his audience, either. The filmmaker presents Samet’s photographs as perfectly composed shots of tragic beauty – even though the schoolteacher could not have possibly captured such artistry through his rinky-dink point-and-shoot.

And then about three-quarters of the way through the film, just after Samet and Nuray engage in a marathon battle of the sexes that could form the spine of its own separate film, the director pushes the entire story outside the confines of the village and into another reality altogether – an eye-popping moment of fourth-wall-breaking that seems designed to wake whatever portion of the audience might’ve drifted off.

Not that many moviegoers will need to be slapped so hard awake at that point – About Dry Grasses is the best kind of slow burn, searing and severe.

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