Longing & Regretting: On Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “The Wild Pear Tree” (2018)

A stylized shot of Sinan (Doğu Demirkol) sitting with books in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "The Wild Pear Tree" (2018).

‘Have you seen The Wild Pear Tree’?

These are the words I have been continually asked ever since its 2018 debut, and my answer has always been, ‘I will upon access.’ Well, now the time has come. Firstly, I shall begin by saying that Nuri Bilge Ceylan is likely the greatest living filmmaker. Yes, there are others, like Steve McQueen, but The Wild Pear Tree not only captures the depth and breadth of Tarkovsky and Bergman, but its unique imagery and dialogue illuminates. It has been said that Ceylan claims to enjoy ‘really long, boring films.’ I presume that when he said this, he was referring to what is perceived as such according to the average person’s taste, because upon watching The Wild Pear Tree (which finishes in just over three hours), this film is everything but boring. But…let me begin.

The film stars Doğu Demirkol as Sinan who has returned to his hometown after graduating university. Word has it that he has written a novel, or rather, ‘literary reflections’ that he seeks to publish. His father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), works as a teacher but has a fantasy of living off the land, away from the city. He seeks to retire, but in the interim he is fixated on finding water at the bottom of a well. One afternoon, Sinan assists at the well begrudgingly, as he knows the neighbors think his father is ridiculous. Yet at the same time there is an underlining resentment that Sinan feels when it comes to his father’s gambling habit. (All done for the intention to someday live out this ‘living off the land’ fantasy.)

While home, Sinan bumps into previous classmates, one who is a girl named Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü). He finds her working in the field, and she is someone from high school that he used to give ‘lots of books to,’ according to her jealous ex-boyfriend. It is clear that Sinan is attracted to her, yet disappointingly he learns that she is getting married out of not what appears to be love but convenience. Upon asking her what her heart says, she replies, ‘My heart? When did my heart last say anything?’

Much of The Wild Pear Tree involves the distant feelings of a young man who is unable to connect with those around him. As example, Hatice is more than willing to merely ‘be someone’s wife,’ even though she kisses Sinan beneath the tree. (She bites his lip, perhaps in rebellion?) Afterwards, we are given a voiceover from Sinan’s book, which is a smart move on Ceylan’s part, because we hear that the young writer does have talent:

When we learn we are not so important why is our instinct to be hurt? Wouldn’t it be better to treat it as a key moment of insight? We engender our own beliefs. Thus we need to believe in separation as much as in beauty and love, and to be prepared. Because rupture and separation in wait for everything beautiful. In which case, why not treat these tribulations as constructive disasters that help us pierce our own mysteries?

Meantime, the only being that Sinan’s father is seemingly able to connect to and love is a dog. ‘The dog doesn’t judge him,’ Sinan’s mother says. Eventually, however, in order for Sinan to fund his self-publishing venture, he sells his father’s dog. Then, when the book is presented at the local bookstore, Sinan learns that not a single copy was sold in the five months of its display. Even his sister doesn’t read it. ‘I have exams,’ she says. Here, Ceylan chooses to approach the life and mind of the artist realistically. Firstly, few young writers are able nowadays to get published by a ‘respectable’ press, especially if the work has a literary bent. Secondly, Sinan’s family’s reaction is all too typical, where they simply don’t care. Even Sinan’s mother, who cries upon seeing the book for the first time, is more impressed with the idea that her son has ‘accomplished something,’ rather than reading the actual book itself.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been a major force in film, ever since his early works. Films such as Distant, Climates, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Winter Sleep all involve the detachment characters feel. Coupled with his imagery and cinematography, one can see why he has been ranked alongside many previous Masters, including Michaelangelo Antonioni. So what is The Wild Pear Tree? Not only is it the title of Sinan’s novel, but the metaphor herein is such, ‘You know, sometimes things I see in you, me and even granddad remind me of a wild pear tree. I don’t know. We’re all misfits, solitary, misshapen.’

Furthermore, the film engages in moments of dream that refer back to earlier symbolism, (such as the image of Sinan’s father falling asleep in a pile of ants, which is seen again when a sleeping baby tied from the tree also has ants upon him). By the film’s end, Sinan learns that his father is likely the only one to have read his book, and that he even kept a newspaper clipping involving the book’s release. Perhaps these two are not so different, as each has his dream that others are unable to appreciate or see.

There is something about having no one to talk to about your interests. No one who understands, but rather, these same people push you into a small corner that is marred by conformity. Why don’t you want what they want? No creative, thinking person wants to be there. It is not that these people are necessarily bad, but apathetic. In an interview, Ceylan notes:

I wanted to talk about what’s surrounding young men in Turkey, what they have to confront in real life especially if they want to do something different. For example, if you want to be a writer in the countryside nobody will understand you. You will be quite alone. It’s not easy to find a friend who will understand you. There are some people in the region I come from who catch me when I go [visiting] because they have no one to talk to about literature, etc. My father was also like this. He loved history, Alexander the Great, was an expert but he couldn’t talk about this with anybody. If he [shared stories] nobody would care. People around him would start making fun of him.

One can see that the above is not limited to Turkey, but anyone who feels differently or whose interests fall outside the norm. How often have you felt the need to keep yourself hidden, knowing full well that you’d be misunderstood were you to share? As with any Ceylan film, there is no distinct plot summary that can shoehorn it into place. I suppose that ultimately this is a film about a father and son, as the son comes to learn that he is not so different from his father (something that his father has known all along). The end scene is an indication of this.

I watched The Wild Pear Tree twice in the same weekend, as I felt I very much needed it. Not just for this review, but the film is so philosophical that it is difficult to pinpoint. As example, there is a wonderful dialogue exchange between Sinan and an older, more embittered writer. Within the conversation it is mentioned that works should not be summarized in a single sentence. Later, there is a long exchange involving the freedom of religion, ‘Someone wrote that if the truth was proven to be outside Islam, he’d rather choose Islam than the truth,’ wherein Sinan responds, ‘Which proves the famous argument that faith is wanting not to know the truth.’

As with any complex film, The Wild Pear Tree must be taken in slowly. Recently, at a work dinner, someone was startled by the fact that I admitted to never watching television. ‘Not even the news?’ I was asked. ‘I can just look online,’ I replied. It wasn’t judgment but bemusement that filled the questioner’s face. Were I deeply religious, I suppose I could have attributed my reasoning to faith. Difference often leaves someone feeling separate—that there is little left to speak of. Some even grow resentful. ‘You think you’re so special?’ Nuri Bilge Ceylan has crafted an internal landscape marred by weathering. Too often, we spend our lives longing for the dream. Perhaps we’re better off longing than regretting.

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If you enjoyed this review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a discussion with Ivan Katchanovski on Maidan and Ukrainian history in light of the Russia-Ukraine War, an analysis of Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic 1929 novel, Some Prefer Nettles, and a discussion with Jessica Schneider on her poetry collection.

More from Jessica Schneider: A World of Green Trees: Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), Stand Like Trees: The Overlooked Poetry of Judith WrightFor the First Time: Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)