The literary genre known as the Bildungsroman — literally, a “novel of education” — generally doesn’t translate to the movies well. Tracing the evolution of a young protagonist from naïve assurance (or cynicism) to a hard-won and wiser adulthood, it requires viewers to hold the main character at arm’s-length, laughing at his or her follies while perhaps remembering their own.
“The Wild Pear Tree” shows the Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” “Winter Sleep”) trying his hand at a cinematic Bildungsroman to subtle, ultimately devastating effect. The movie has the length of an epic — three hours in the telling — and occasionally the visual scope, as when the camera widens out to take in the fog-tinseled mountains and harbors of the southern Dardanelles. But “Wild Pear Tree” also stays close to its annoying young hero as he beats his head against family, hometown, art, waiting for the light to break through.
His name is Sinan (Dogu Demirkol), and he has returned home from college to Canakkale, a seaport town known for being the site of both ancient Troy and the World War I Battle of Gallipoli. That’s the stuff of history at which Sinan scoffs (although he does at one point take refuge in a replica of the Trojan Horse left over from the 2004 Hollywood film “Troy”). No, Sinan has written his own book – a “quirky, metafictional novel,” oh dear – and much of the movie concerns his efforts to get the work published.
Correction: Much of “The Wild Pear Tree” consists of tense, sometimes angry philosophic conversations between Sinan and various representatives of the adult world he wants to emulate or scorn or both. The film’s centerpiece is an extended argument (academic at first, then literal) with a famous author (Serkan Keskin) who Sinan corners in a café, the talk ranging from how much a writer should strip-mine his own life to an author’s place in society. (“I thought writers were supposed to oppose everything,” says Sinen with the pomposity of youth.)
The scene is dense, quite funny, and obliquely subversive; if Ceylan isn’t a polemical filmmaker, he understands that nothing is not political in Erdogan’s Turkey. So, too, in Sinan’s encounter with a local blue-collar businessman who might bankroll a novel, but only if it were about the heroes of Troy or Gallipoli. A long country walk with a genially corrupt imam (co-scripter Akin Aksu) and his more pious assistant (Oner Erkan) devolves into a discreetly hilarious three-way discussion about what we owe God, what God owes us, and whether He exists.
The boy wants to be a self-made man, complete and autonomous; he succeeds mostly at being a pill. He certainly doesn’t want to be anything like his father, Idris (a poignant Murat Cemcir), a schoolteacher who has caved into a gambling addiction that bankrupts his family and causes endless embarrassment to his son.
(Sinan’s mother and sister, played by Bennu Yildirimlar and Asena Keskinci, are among the few women we see. A third is Hazar Ergucli’s Hatice, a high school friend now engaged to a rich man and chafing under the newly prescribed veil. Her anger and ardor are a mystery to the cocky young hero, and Ceylan doubtless knows there’s a whole other movie there. At least one can hope.)
“The Wild Pear Tree” wends its patient, intelligent way toward a rapprochement between the generations, an acceptance of the past and the land, and a weary wising-up of its central figure. The echoes of Chekhov are earned, the strains of Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor don’t feel at all out of place. The final sequence leaves Sinan and the audience at a crossroads between giving up and carrying on, as absurd as the latter is and always will be. That choice haunts everyone: The hero, his creator, and all of us watching in the dark.
THE WILD PEAR TREE
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Akin Aksu. Starring Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir. At Museum of Fine Arts today and various dates April 12-26. 188 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, some language). In Turkish, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.