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‘About Dry Grasses’: Three Epic Hours With One of Cinema’s Greatest Pricks

Toronto International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival

About Dry Grasses begins with the crackling of falling snow and concludes with the crunch of desiccated grass being crushed underfoot. In both cases, the landscape in Turkey’s rural Eastern Anatolia is harsh to the point of severity, and so too is the heart of Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu), a middle-school teacher whose discontent manifests itself via his affiliation with two women.

An off-putting thirtysomething whose egotism is matched only by his deceitfulness, Samet is a conflicted art teacher who mires himself in dual messes of his own making. In Winter Sleep director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest opus (in theaters Feb. 23, following acclaimed runs at last year’s international film festivals), he provides a stark window into the conflicted soul of his homeland, whose tensions and schisms are subtly evoked throughout the course of this challenging, if ultimately rich and rewarding, 197-minute import of longing, resentment, compromise, and self-interest.

Returning from holiday, Samet is greeted warmly at school by female student Sevim (Ece Bağcı)—too warmly, in fact, with her arm briefly reaching around his back, and then going into the crook of his arm, as they speak in private in a dark hallway. Samet gives Sevim a pocket mirror as a gift, tells her to “look at it at home,” and makes her promise to not show it to anyone. The intimacy of the moment is so intense as to be unmistakably inappropriate. A transfer from Istanbul who’s been in this enclave for four years, Samet appears to have crossed a line that he either doesn’t see or care about, and when, a short time later, his military commander friend remarks, “You’re always hanging out with the wrong people,” the implication—and quick look on Samet’s face—is difficult to miss.

To hammer this point home, Samet is subsequently chided by a male student for always calling on Sevim and her friends, and a colleague refers to her as “your Sevim.” This latter comment comes on the heels of the administration’s search of student belongings, during which a love letter written by Sevim about Samet is found in her bag. Samet downplays this innocent gesture—which flatters his ego—and yet when Sevim comes to recover the letter, teary embarrassment smeared across her face, Samet downplays its importance and then lies by saying he destroyed it.

This is merely the first of many untruths uttered by the educator, and it flops badly; Sevim doesn’t believe him, and a few days afterwards, he and his housemate and fellow teacher Kenan (Musab Ekici) are summoned to the office of the Director of Education, who informs them that they’ve been accused by students of unsuitable behavior. Despite their shock and outrage, they’re denied any specifics about the charges, thus setting them against their new principal Bekir (Onur Berk Arslanoğlu) and motivating an enraged Samet to take out his fury on Sevim, whom he naturally assumes is the culprit.

Concurrently, Samet starts a relationship with Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a teacher at a different school who lost a leg in a terrorist bombing. Though Nuray has considered transferring from this middle-of-nowhere community to Istanbul—which is where the unhappy Samet dreams of moving to when his term is finished—she remains committed to her present mission. With wide eyes that convey genuine toughness and, lurking beneath it, anger and sorrow at her disabled condition (which has marked her as a social outcast), Nuray is a woman seemingly caught between freedom and dependence. Initially disinterested in her, Samet introduces Nuray to Kenan. Upon doing so, however, he turns out to be jealous of their instant connection, and slowly endeavors to curry favor with Nuray through devious means.

All of this plays out in Ceylan’s trademark style, full of long dialogue-heavy scenes between a handful of individuals in cozy interior or expansive exterior spaces. Extended conversations wend their way around numerous subjects, such that characters’ thoughts and intentions are suggested rather than outright stated. About Dry Grasses is the rare film to earn the designation “novelistic,” its writing dense even as its plotting remains sparse, and its personal and environmental details sharp and evocative. From the whipping wind of the plains where Samet and Kenan frequently hang out (and Kenan collects water from melting snow on a rock), to the chill of a cramped home owned by older Vahit (Yüksel Aksu), who entertains his guests with whiskey, the director captures the rawness of this inhospitable locale and, more pressing still, what it feels like to inhabit it, including with regards to the various social and professional customs and dynamics that govern its daily life.

A photo including a still from the film About Dry Grasses
Toronto International Film Festival

At more than three hours, About Dry Grasses is a quiet, patient epic into which one comfortably sinks, even as Samet continues to prove himself something of a prick. Conspiring to sneakily win Nuray from Kenan, he outs himself as an inherently selfish man—a notion that Nuray herself articulates during a lengthy argument in which she proclaims that changing the world (and one’s position in it) only comes from active engagement with it, not the passive “intellectual” apathy that Samet champions. Moreover, he’s a lout who toys with women’s affections, wanting things from them that he has no desire to return in kind. As superbly embodied by Celiloğlu, he’s something of an unsympathetic creep. However, the film refuses to unduly moralize, instead merely charting his often-unpleasant actions and the effect they have on Kenan and Nuray, the latter of whom is played by Dizdar with a complexity of emotion that rightfully earned her the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

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Ceylan dramatizes his protagonists’ shifting allegiances and outlooks via POV compositions from over individuals’ shoulders, as well as master shots that tellingly juxtapose them against their bitter environs. The director eschews showy flourishes; his spartan style is pointedly attuned to the unseen currents running between these men and women, complicating their days and nights, their presents and futures. When the ice thaws and the sun emerges, Samet remains in desperate need of connection with the world and others, and yet too self-centered to create such bonds—leaving him, like so many of his countrymen, in enduring limbo, as alone and dried up as the arid hillside grass upon which he tramples.

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