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Review: 'About Dry Grasses' is a richly evocative 2024 highlight

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

“About Dry Grasses” begins with blackness, and the plep-plep sound of wet snow hitting the ground. Seconds later comes the startling image of a man alone on a country road, more dot than man in the long shot, trudging along with a briefcase, surrounded by a wind-whipped sea of white.

Yes, you are correct. This is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s too striking a shot to dismiss as self-conscious or unpromisingly stern. And this is the latest, and one of the greatest, from co-writer and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Istanbul-based writer-director.

Ceylan ranks among the world’s six, maybe eight reliably exquisite poets of cinema. That sort of description typically makes me urp; too many critics serve it up every week or two and they cry wolf, or masterwork, or not-to-be-missed too often to be trusted. But Ceylan and “About Dry Grasses” can handle it.

Weirdly, the film is the third feature to open commercially recently that depicts schoolteachers in crisis. First, for laughs and carefully engineered heartwarming, we had “The Holdovers.” Then, from Germany, the clammy nail-biter “The Teachers’ Lounge.” The middle-school art instructor in Ceylan’s first shot is Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), who has returned from home after winter break (though winter clearly isn’t taking any time off) for the final months of his fourth year in a remote Turkish Anatolian village.

Describing Samet as a burned-out case suggests he may have been an effective and dedicated teacher once upon a time, in Anatolia or anywhere. But probably not. With characteristic disregard for redemption narratives, Ceylan and his co-writers Ebru Ceylan (also his wife, also his co-star in the 2006 stunner “Climates”) and Akin Aksu unveil, gradually, a fearless portrait of a cynical, casually arrogant victim of circumstance.

He shares an apartment with his fellow public schoolteacher Kenan (Musab Ekici), as genial and generally happy as Samet is cagey and contained. Samet, we soon learn, favors the best and brightest girls in his classroom, chiefly Sevim (Ece Bagci). He has taken to giving her occasional gifts, such as a compact mirror; his conduct and familiarity with the girl has drawn the attention of the other students. Following a formal complaint regarding both Samet and Kenan, the school district administration gets involved.

 

The movie does not go where you think it will, or pay close attention to the gradations of Samet’s dangerous misjudgments at the expense of a larger narrative. Every moment of its three-plus hours feels necessary, and its brilliant final third wouldn’t be what it is without the room and time. At heart “About Dry Grasses” is a wise and sneakily humane chronicle of three adults, one betrayal and the price of living a toxically unexamined life.

The crucial character here is another schoolteacher from a nearby town, Nuray (Merve Dizdar, who won the best actress award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival). A left-wing dissident and former military soldier, the woman lost her leg in a suicide bombing incident. Like Samet, she’s an artist; unlike Samet, she is genuinely interested in her surroundings, and not just because she’s a native to the area. Samet and Nuray meet for tea early on in “About Dry Grasses.” It’s clear he’s reluctant to take it further. On a hike to the local hillside well, Samet humblebrags by showing Kenan an Instagram photo of Nuray. Kenan and Nuray soon become friends; Samet grows jealous. As a squirmy revenge maneuver, Samet engineers a dinner in secret with Nuray, which begins with a gripping dinnertime political debate between the blase realist and the fierce idealist, fraught with more than one kind of tension.

There’s a sly streak of black comedy in so many of the conversations and encounters here. The acting is without fault, and the fluidity and variety in the shot designs represent a stimulating refinement to Ceylan’s technique. Between’s Ceylan’s eye for faces, landscapes and spatial dynamics, and the first-rate work of cinematographers Kürsat Üresin and Cevahir Sahin, “About Dry Grasses” fills every widescreen frame with life.

There are times when Samet’s caddishness becomes too plainly telegraphed in Celiloglu’s peformance. And while the movie’s riskiest stylistic leap (no spoilers here) worked for me, the climactic voice-over narration spell things out in ways the near-entirety of “About Dry Grasses” avoids so effectively. Small matters. It’s beautiful work, and not just because it’s beautiful. At one point over dinner, with sexual suspense hanging in the air, Nuray indicates that she’s ready, which in the case of Samet, means she’s ready to make the necessarily moral compromise to lead to the bedroom. “You need time to get to know someone,” she tells him. “On the other hand, certain things, when left to time … would just be a waste of time.”

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