Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2019

Auteur missteps: The Wild Pear Tree; Everybody Knows

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:02 pm

Ordinarily, Hollywood films are the only ones I would consider rating as “rotten” on Rottentomatoes.com for the simple reason that independent films, foreign-language films and documentaries—my usual fare—have difficulties enough getting an audience. Reluctantly, I have decided to post a “rotten” review of two recent films by directors who I consider to be among the best in the world today: Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Iran’s Asghar Farhadi. Five years ago, I wrote a review of Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” that began:

For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.

Although I was disappointed with Farhadi’s 2016 film “The Salesman”, I stuck to my usual non-aggression pact with art film and neglected to write a “rotten” review. Likely, the good feelings generated by his previous films, the 2011 “A Separation” and the 2013 “The Past”, had a lot to do with this. Unlike his fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who has made outspoken films challenging Islamic Republic repression, Farhadi’s films tend to accept the political status quo even if they describe a society that is coming apart at the seams due to the stifling patriarchal norms.

In a fascinating profile of Farhadi in the January 31, 2019 NY Times Sunday Magazine, they describe the tightrope he walks:

Farhadi has learned, as he says, to speak quietly in his films, and part of this involves trusting his audience to listen for his meanings. In the stark opening shot of “A Separation” (2011), which also won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, a man and a woman, the woman wearing a head scarf (as all female citizens of Iran are required to do in public), look straight into the camera and explain their plight. After years of marriage, they are separating; each is seeking custody of their only child, a 12-year-old girl. As they make their competing arguments (the woman wants to leave the country because she believes their daughter will have a better life abroad; the man says he has to stay to look after his father, who has Alzheimer’s), we realize they are in an Islamic divorce court. The person being addressed is a judge — although it is also, in a way, the viewer, whom Farhadi always enlists as a kind of juror in his moral procedurals. “As a mother, I’d prefer my daughter not grow up in these circumstances,” the woman says. “What circumstances?” the baffled judge, still only a disembodied voice, asks. He doesn’t receive an answer — Farhadi, a master of pacing and suggestive omission, has already ushered us into the next scene — but Iranians, and those familiar with the social conditions under which Iranian women live, will know all too well the circumstances she’s referring to.

I regard “A Separation” as a masterpiece and urge you to rent it on Amazon Prime for only $2.99, where you can also see “Winter Sleep” for just a dollar more.

Considering the overall quality of their films and the respect they command from the critical establishment in the West, I thought it was time to review Ceylan’s latest film “The Wild Pear Tree” that made it into American theaters this year in the hope that it might help me round out my “best of” ballot for NYFCO, the film critics group I belong to. Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows”, which came out in 2018, had its critics but I calculated that even if it was flawed like “The Salesman” it would be a lot better than the Hollywood junk I will be covering next month in advance of the NYFCO awards meeting in December.

Both of these films were self-indulgent and unfocused. Unfortunately, the 95 percent “fresh” reviews for “The Wild Pear Tree” and the 83 percent “fresh” for “Everybody Knows” reflect the free ride “quality” directors get based on past performance. Neither film comes close to the standards of their earlier work and it is likely that in the absence of serious criticism, they will not learn from their mistakes. Even though I doubt that anything I write will get the attention of either Ceylan or Farhadi, perhaps aspiring film students will become cognizant of their defects and be wary of making them themselves as their career unfolds.

As “The Wild Pear Tree” begins, recent college graduate Senin (Dogu Demirkol) has just returned home to Çan, a small city in the Marmara region of Turkey. His most likely career option is teaching in a public school in the country’s eastern hinterlands, a low-paying and emotionally draining job that his father once had until seniority brought him back to Çan where he still teaches.

Senin dreads taking such a job even if he passed the compulsory test that is set at a fairly high bar. He only has dreams of becoming a writer. With a bildungsroman manuscript in hand, which includes a chapter titled “The Wild Pear Tree”, he drops in on the mayor in hopes of getting funding for a first print edition. Evidently, digital self-publishing has not arrived yet in Turkey, or perhaps it never entered Ceylan’s mind to even include such an option for his main character. Since Sinan has an inflated ego, it is something he conceivably ruled out.

Despite his book’s focus on the cultural life of Çan (the rolling hills are filled with wild pear trees), he despises everybody who lives there, including his father who had a gambling addiction that ruined the family. When he runs into a woman he had a crush on in high school, they stroll around an orchard where she is a day laborer. Now wearing a head scarf, she feels some distance from the college graduate who can’t help making patronizing remarks about the city and its people. Even worse, he blurts out that when he lived there, he fantasized about being a dictator who had the power to drop an atom bomb on the city.

The only redeeming feature of “The Wild Pear Tree” is the cinematography. Ceylan started out professionally as a photographer and his portrait of Çan is stunning. This is a place where most people make a living off the land and Ceylan depicts rural Turkey as a charming near-paradise in sharp distinction to Sinan’s alienation from nature. He disdains his father who never stopped loving Çan’s flora and fauna, including the jackals who occasionally raid the shed where he keeps a small herd of lambs.

Sinan’s arrogance reflects the tensions between Turkey’s educated and secular-minded middle class and the pious and mostly rural folk who have voted for Erdogan. Time after time, he challenges both family and friends over their failure to see things the way he does, to the point where his litany becomes grating.

In this three-hour film, Ceylan includes several scenes that last for at least twenty minutes, each one dramatizing this rift. In visiting the local bookstore to see if they would be interested in his book, he spots Çan’s most famous author, a man about his father’s age and a symbol of privilege that he envies. Striking up a conversation with the man, Sinan subtly begins to needle him about failing to see the city with the kind of honesty he supposedly shows in his unpublished manuscript. Uninvited, he follows him outside the bookstore and practically stalks him on his way home, escalating his invective until the elderly author tells him—politely—to get lost.

This is a cringe-worthy twenty minutes of dialogue but nothing nearly so stupefying as the next lengthy scene that has Sinan strolling along the alleys and byways of Çan with a couple of imams who debate each other and him for what seems like an eternity. The conversation seeks to resolve whether God exists, a matter of little interest to Ceylan’s audience and only something that a director supremely convinced of his talents would have ever considered foisting on them.

I doubt that anybody reading this would care much about spoilers but this paragraph will reveal the ending of the film since it is crucial for understanding its failure. Sinan has failed to land a teaching job, sell a single copy of his finally self-published book, and returned home to find his father up to his usual foibles. Perhaps understanding his own limitations for the first time, he recognizes that, despite Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again. But to what end? With nothing but low-paying factory or farming jobs, what are his prospects? The only short-term solution is to help his father who has been digging a well for years on a small plot of land he owns on a hillside. There are two alternative endings that the audience will have to figure out which serves as the best denouement. In the first, we see Sinan hanging from a noose at the top of the well. In the second, we see him at the bottom of the well using a shovel to dig out some boulders that might be the final obstacle to drawing water.

For three hours, we have seen Sinan in one fruitless and one-sided conversation with a wide range of people. With not the slightest indication of emotional growth, what is the basis for accepting his reconciliation with father and countrymen as plausible? A more satisfying film would have avoided the 11th hour menu choices of suicide or salvation and shown Sinan growing as a man and a Turk. One wonders if it is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s inability to conceive of a way forward in Turkey that makes this film such a dispiriting experience. Ultimately a pessimist and an aesthete, Ceylan must find a way to reach a higher level of engagement with Turkish realities to move forward as an artist.

Enjoying relative freedom as an artist because of his non-confrontational stance, Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows” is a Spanish film for all practical purposes. Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, it is a story about a kidnapping but totally unlike the usual crime melodrama. Instead, it is a family drama revolving around a crisis that brings out the best and the worst of its characters. It is reminiscent of Farhadi’s 2009 “About Elly” that also involves a disappearance, in that instance a woman who drowned in the Caspian Sea during an outing with a group of her friends. The tension in the film derives from assigning blame, just as the case in “Everybody Knows”.

The characters in “Everybody Knows” are an extended family ruled over by a patriarch as feckless in his way as Sinan’s father is in Ceylan’s film. He and dozens of others have come to a small town near Madrid to celebrate the wedding of one of his daughters.

At two hours and thirteen minutes, “Everybody Knows” is a slog but not as bad as “The Wild Pear Tree”. Like Ceylan, Farhadi is self-indulgent. The first thirty-eight minutes of the film consists of people dancing, singing, drinking and feasting. Since Farhadi is prevented from filming such a bacchanalian scene in his homeland, one might gather that he included this material to get something out of his system. One wonders if his non-Iranian audience that enjoys such freedoms finds it very useful in advancing the narrative. After seeing fifteen minutes of them getting drunk and acting stupid, I told my wife that I wish they would all come under a zombie attack that left them dead on the ballroom floor.

Once again a spoiler alert. Go no further if you think you might want to punish yourself by watching “Everybody Knows”.

It turns out that the kidnapping was an inside job. The kidnapping of a teen girl was carried out by men hired by her mother played by Penelopé Cruz, the daughter of the patriarch who owns the land that keeps the extended family afloat, even if meagerly.

They intend to get Javier Bardem to pay the ransom even if it means selling the land that he purchased from the patriarch years ago during his years as a thrifty servant to the clan and made productive through growing grapes for a winery he co-owns. Pressure can be applied on him since he was once Penelopé Cruz’s lover and—as it turns out—the actual father of the supposedly kidnapped girl (a repulsive character, actually.)

There are class distinctions that are hinted at in the film but remain underdeveloped. When the clan is seated around a dining table to discuss what steps to take to rescue the kidnapped girl, there are frequent references to Bardem not only having cheated them but being an upstart who doesn’t belong in their semi-feudal milieu, even if tattered around the edges.

If Farhadi wanted to make a far more compelling film, he should have made the class distinctions far more obvious especially in a country like Spain in which the ancien régime persists in so many ways. The patriarch might have spouted things about how great Franco was, after one of his many drunken binges during the ordeal. For a good idea of how such a drama can unfold, I recommend “The Little Stranger” that I reviewed last year for CounterPunch. It involved the tangled relationship between an aristocratic but now hard-up family in an estate called The Hundreds and a doctor who has a worshipful attitude toward them and the house. I wrote:

The Ayres summon the village doctor to look at Betty, one Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who like the family matron is never mentioned by his first name. Like Betty, he was a villager who grew up in a working-class family. But unlike Betty, he managed to join the middle class mostly because of the sacrifices made by his parents who died young because of overwork. His mother was a maid at The Hundreds who brought him there in 1919 to celebrate Empire Day with the Ayres who were in their heyday. As the name implies, this holiday was created to inculcate children with the belief that they belonged to a glorious Empire, including those in Kenya, India and elsewhere.

Released at the same time as “Everybody Knows”, “The Little Stranger” garnered a 66 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 17 points lower than Farhadi’s film. It deserved better. Way overpriced at $14.99 on all the VOD sites, keep an eye out for it later this year. It should come down based on the ineluctable dynamics of video rentals.

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