4 Stars

Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues his grandiose creative momentum with his latest art-house dramatic epic, About Dry Grasses. With his 2014 Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep (which made my top ten list in 2014) and his 2018 masterpiece The Wild Pear Tree (which made my top 10 list in 2019), Ceylan continues to prove himself as an impeccable craftsman and storyteller with extraordinary writing skills and a continuing interest in the human condition. His follow-up to The Wild Pear Tree is certainly a companion piece about Turkish despotism and feeling trapped in a hopeless society. In a more democratic- republic where the local town is under the residue of military checkpoints, Ceylan is vigilant with his contemplation of Turkish society, and he has a deep understanding of how society can’t function if it’s not democratically united. Ceylan’s latest framework is assured, though it might sound exhausting with its 195-minute running time, but it’s a rewarding film thanks to its first-rate performances and sharply scripted dialogue exchange.

The film is about a contemporary middle-aged teacher named Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), who teaches art to middle schoolers in a small Turkish village just outside Anatolia. He is very bitter, cynical, and holds no confidence in romance. He is single and champions his bachelorhood. He is roommates with fellow co-worker and teacher Kena (Musab Ekici). They are both unmarried, and Kenan yearns to find a woman. Samet believes he is still too young to marry. Eventually, both men are suspected of inappropriate behavior toward two female students.

About Dry Grasses

Courtesy Janus Films

One of the female students, 14-year-old Sevim (Eco Bagci), is a protege of Samet’s with whom he has flirty exchanges, but he never acts upon anything with her. He always leaves the door open in his office and keeps his stance, but you can see they have a bond together where if he acted on anything, it would go against his principles as an ethical person and teacher. It’s clear that she is infatuated with him, and during a random classroom backpack check by the school’s superintendents, a love letter is found in her backpack that is clearly written to him. Eventually Samet is summoned by the faculty, where they instantly cover up accusations that there were reports that he hugged Sevim around her waist. Discouraged and baffled, Samet is unsettled by the accusations, but the administrators whitewash all allegations and reassure Samet and Kena that they can return to the classroom.

While the teacher-student relationship isn’t creepy or sexual, there is certainly a kinship between them. Samet sees a lot of potential in Sevim, but teenage girls and young women in Turkey are left repressed with their desires under a patriarchy where it can only be natural for Sevim to develop romantic feelings for her mentor. Ceylan is a far more sophisticated filmmaker to make the film about the accusation. With subtly, it is clear that Samet isn’t a pedophile. Savim is a young girl who is attractive to him, and confusions arise. What ends up discouraging Samet even more is when he sees just how corrupt and abusive the educational system is behind the scenes. Once he realizes how quickly the board brushed the letter and the accusation of the intimate hug under the rug, this just reassures Samet that the education system isn’t in the best interest of the children. He already perceives the school like a factory that undermines the students’ potential and props them up to work mostly in agriculture in a mixed economy that will only make the rich wealthier. This only makes Savim even more cynical.

About Dry Grasses (2023)

Courtesy Janus Pictures

Eventually, the film shifts away from the scandal, and Ceylan verbalizes Savim’s ethos. During some outstanding scenes, we meet another teacher in the area named Nuray (Merve Dizdar). The bond is quite fascinating in the narrative. At first, Savim is told by a relative that he knows a single woman, whom he ends up introducing Kena to. Both Kena and Nuray end up having an attraction, and Savim feels like a matchmaker because he doesn’t have to deal with an unwanted romance. However, as Savim feels more cynical about his purpose as a teacher, he tends to grow more isolated. He ends up finding himself more drawn to Nuray, and you can sense he appreciates her sharp intellect.

After sidelining Kena from a dinner gathering that Nuray invited both of them to on a wintry night, the two end up having a deeply felt and existential conversation about various topics ranging from politics to human rights. Savim has ethos, but he appears too self-absorbed and easily conformed to Turkey’s despotism, where Nuray is more politically conscious and believes hope and activism are more pragmatic than just dwelling on the status quo of societal and political structures. The banter between Savim and Nuray is some of the most existential written dialogue exchanges that Ceylan has ever written, along with those between fellow co-writers Akin Aksu and his spouse, Ebru Ceylan.

About Dry Grasses

Courtesy Janus Films

As Savim feels confined and hopeless with his job—his office is in a closed-in basement after all—and he feels like he will never get transferred—Nuray believes Savim will more or less still be unhappy no matter where he goes. Every area is faced with some form of adversity. Nuray believes one must adapt and resharpen themselves to live around adversity while taking action for change. The pessimism that Savism feels is challenged by Nuray, who dismisses it as endless intuitional drudgery that drains him from the inside. The film’s third act, where the title comes into play, proceeds as the camera surveys the changing seasons in Turkey’s ravishing landscapes, reassuring some hope for Savim’s ongoing ennui.

Certainly, there’s a lot to process here, but anyone who appreciates films that are introspective in scope, evocative of the human condition, and intelligently scripted and directed will find a lot to appreciate. I just revisited Bela Tarr’s 1994 masterpiece Sátántangó the other day all in one sitting, which is a little over 7 hours. About Dry Grasses is a little over 3 hours, and it felt like a breeze. This is my second viewing of the film, which felt even more illuminating than my initial viewing at the New York Film Festival back in October 2023. But yes, this is a dramatically satisfying film that is richly achieved in so many ways, which proves Ceylan has a talented ear for dialogue. It never feels overwritten, perhaps verbose in some scenes, but it works as a brilliant allegory of Turkey’s societal and political mechanisms that appear to be in need of deep healing. In short, Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues his luminous streak of making artful and essential films about Turkey’s uncertainties.

ABOUT DRY GRASSES opens in limited theaters Friday, February 23rd.