Learning Curve
by A. G. Sims

About Dry Grasses
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, Sideshow/Janus

[Note: The following review contains plot spoilers.]

In an early scene in About Dry Grasses, Samet (Deni̇z Celi̇loğlu), an art teacher who’s assigned to a school in a rural village in East Anatolia, gives his favorite student, Sevim (Ece Bağci), a small present on their way to class. As they walk, she loops her arm through his, and he very briefly touches her back. The dynamic between them, which is central to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest movie, beguiles from the outset. It can be whatever you want it to be, depending on how you look at it. It’s easily passable as bait, daring you to read more into it than what’s there on the screen. Working with the smallest of gestures, Ceylan is able to create the tension of being right on the line between appropriate and not. And the possibility (and fear) of Samet crossing that line animates all of his scenes with Sevim. Ceylan has been acclaimed by critics and festivals over the course of his eight-film career, and he is still able to surprise with such moments of complexity.

In the first scene, Samet is dropped at a remote bus stop, the ground covered in powdery snow, and walks the long distance to the school where he’s in his fourth year of a compulsory education assignment. He’d rather be in Istanbul, he says, drawing a contrast between the rural and the urban, and is hoping to transfer at the end of the school year. His hopes for escape, however, threaten to be dashed when he and his roommate, Kenan (Musab Eki̇ci̇), a native of the village who also teaches at the school, suddenly stand accused of inappropriate behavior by two anonymous students. They’re called to meet with the education director, who informs them that the situation’s already been handled, and they’ll keep their jobs. But throughout the film, Samet struggles to make sense of these allegations, and the bureaucratic process seeks to protect the image of the education system more than establish anything approaching truth. As is revealed to the viewer over the course of the film, this truth is that Samet does bear some guilt, though perhaps not in any simple physical sense. Ceylan’s slow-burning psychological drama isn’t so concerned with indicting him, though, as it is in using the accumulation of detail over its 197-minute runtime to build a damning portrait of a misanthrope blind to the dark corners of his own interiority.

Samet and Kenan are perfect foils, the former longing for what he calls “civilization” and the latter representing the sensibility of the local community, who though stressed by their environment and social circumstances—“You know they want to tax bachelors,” one says—don’t seem to harbor Samet’s resentment or outlook. Through a photo project he’s been working on we understand Samet is curious about the community that he’s a visitor to, and appreciative of the beauty of its icy landscapes and the people who inhabit it. But he still fails to really care about their lives, lying and manipulating whenever it suits him. His artistic engagement with the humanity all around him only serves to highlight his mistreatment of people. After their meeting with the educational director, Samet and Kenan, upset with how the allegations were handled, return to the school and confront the principal, who forwarded the accusations up the chain before speaking with the teachers. When Samet finally arrives back to class after the humiliating events of the morning, he lashes out at the students in anger, telling them that they’ll never be artists and will only amount to planting beets and potatoes “so that the rich can live more comfortably.”

Seeing the world through Samet’s eyes grows tiresome, even against Ceylan’s poetically rendered backdrop, but the narrative blooms when we’re introduced to Nuray (Merve Di̇zdar), who teaches at a school nearby. A friend attempts to set them up (marital status holds a lot of importance here), but Samet is dismissive, immediately pushing her onto Kenan. Still, a love triangle develops between the three as Kenan’s interest in Nuray triggers competitiveness in Samet. Di̇zdar, who won Best Actress at Cannes this year, plays Nuray with strength and poise, though the character may be written with a little too much flair for the symbolic. Giving the “enlightened” character a severe disability, to show her strength and suggest a counterpoint to Samet’s ambient disillusionment, feels like a bit of a shortcut. But Di̇zdar anchors the character with a studied fatigue that she completely embodies, whether Nuray’s having a morning coffee date or a romantic dinner, conveying a world of experience outside of the narrow view of her suitors.

During a centerpiece sequence, when Samet and Nuray, who’s more fond of Kenan, find themselves alone in her apartment, their dinner devolves into a debate of political philosophy. “Comrade Nuray,” as he calls her, is critical of those like Samet, who complain about the state of things without ever attempting to do anything about it. Samet emphatically opposes solidarity, viewing it as a freedom-limiting burden. At the height of their arguing, Samet says something that halts the dialogue. The camera is positioned behind Nuray’s head, and a breeze blows her hair. A shadow flutters on the wall. The mood shifts quietly. Ceylan slows the pace to something almost hypnotic, allowing the viewer to take in everything in his wide frame. When Nuray finally invites Samet to her bedroom, it’s clear she’s still not a big fan. But she’s “weary,” she says, settling for what comfort he can offer in the moment. She asks Samet to turn out the lights in the living room, and it’s at this point that Ceylan takes advantage of the immersive state he’s brought the viewer to, with a stunning Brechtian flourish. As Samet walks through the apartment turning off the lights, he suddenly walks through a door and onto a soundstage. We’re now looking at Celi̇loğlu, the actor, as he washes his hands in a bathroom, before returning to Nuray’s bedroom, as well as the artifice of film. It’s Ceylan’s way of nudging you awake, a reminder not to get too caught up in the narrative.

Nuray’s weariness doesn’t seem to be hers alone. It hangs over the wintry countryside where they teach amidst rural hardship and lingers throughout the seasons as the snow melts, revealing dry grasses underneath, the only remnant of whatever lively vegetation must have existed once before. Nuray doesn’t even seem to see her own grievances as worth stating, the look in her eyes one of deep understanding—everyone here is weary.

On the last day of school, in the spring, Samet has one last confrontation with Sevim, who seems to be back to where she started, adoring her teacher. Because of her happier demeanor, he thinks even worse of her presumed accusations. He tries to coerce an apology or some kind of acknowledgment out of her that she made a mistake in reporting him, but she doesn’t react to his insults. She’s a child, of course, and can’t even comprehend his cruelties. In the movie’s final sequence, Samet, Kenan, and Nuray explore ancient ruins, the leftover riches that remain from civilizations long past. The connection between these landscapes, culture, and history are a foundation of Ceylan’s cinema. The spirit of longing that animates the film is a natural part of the human experience, this bird’s eye view suggests. Our circumstances might change, but life’s essential questions never seem to. In an internal monologue that narrates this passage, Samet says, “Seasons come and go, hopes are born to die, and still, life goes on.” The sudden voiceover is powerful and apt as a wrap-up. That he stands away from Kenan and Nuray as his monologue unfurls seems to suggest that even amidst hardship, connection and catharsis are available to us if we can find a moment to gaze outside of ourselves.