February 23, 2024
by Carla Hay
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Turkish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Turkey, the dramatic film “About Dry Grasses” features a cast if Turkish characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A bachelor, who is an art teacher at a middle school, gets into various entanglements related to his career and his personal life.
Culture Audience: “About Dry Grasses” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and well-acted movies about adults who are disatisfied with their lives.
“About Dry Grasses” will test the patience of anyone who doesn’t want to watch a talkative movie that’s a little more than three hours. However, this artsy drama is an interesting character study of a troubled teacher and his complex relationships. The movie has entwined storylines of how the teacher presents himself in different ways in his job and in his personal life, depending on whom he wants to manipulate or control.
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “About Dry Grasses” was co-written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his wife Ebru Ceylan and Akın Aksu. “About Dry Grasses” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where Merve Dizdar won the prize for Best Actress. The movie made the rounds at other film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “About Dry Grasses” was Turkey’s official selection to be considered for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards. The movie made the shortlist but ultimately did not get an Oscar nomination.
“About Dry Grasses” takes place mostly in the rural municipality of Incescu, Turkey. In 2022, the population of Incescu was a little more than 29,000 people. In the beginning of the movie, it’s winter in an unspecified year in the early 2020s. An art teacher named Samet (played by Deniz Celiloğlu), who has just returned from a trip, trudges through the snow to get back to his modest house that he shares with his roommate Kenan (played by Musab Ekici), who is currently unemployed.
Samet and Kenan are both never-married bachelors in mid-to-late 30s, with no children. When Samet returns home, Kenan tells him that Kenan’s father is in a hospital, and Kenan’s mother is upset because Kenan is still a bachelor with no known prospects of finding a wife. Kenan also says that’s he’s been trying to find a job, but when he interviewed for a job as a security staffer, Kenan was told that the employer would rather have a dog do the security work.
Samet, who is very self-absorbed, doesn’t really care about Kenan’s problems, but he pretends to listen to Kenan as if he cares. As Samet says many times throughout the story, Samet is miserable with small-town life in Incescu, and he wants to find a job in a much bigger city, preferably Istanbul, where he used to live. For the past four years, Samet has been teaching eighth graders at a middle school in Incescu.
When Samet returns to his school after his vacation, he gives a mirror as a gift to one of his students named Savim (played by Ece Bağcı), who is very happy to see Samet. Samet tells her that this mirror is something he bought for her when he was on his trip. From the beginning, something seems a little inappropriate about the way that Savim and Samet are interacting toward each other.
Savim is very giggly with Samet and has an obvious crush on him, but he is touchy-feely with her in an affectionate way that suggests he’s flirting with her too. As an adult teacher, Samet doesn’t seem to be setting professional boundaries between himself and Savim. The mirror gift to Savim is also a sign that he’s giving her special treatment.
When a student complains to Samet in his classroom that Samet is giving special treatment to Savim and Savim’s friends, Samet verbally lashes out at this observant student by insulting him. Throughout the movie, Samet shows that he can be very charming but also very vindictive. He has a nasty temper that flares up whenever someone gives him criticism that he doesn’t like. He can be emotionally cruel to his students or anyone who doesn’t do exactly what he expects them to do.
Kenan eventually gets a job at the school as a custodian. Kenan reports to the school’s live-in custodian named Tolga (played by Erdem Senocak), who is later revealed to be a bit of a gossip. Kenan is a good guy who thinks Samet is his best friend, but Kenan is slow to pick up on social cues and facial expressions to see how Samet might really feel. Kenan mistakenly believes that Samet is as honest as Kenan is.
Samet hangs out with Kenan because Samet wants to be the superior “alpha male” to Kenan’s “beta male.” This attitude is most evident when a certain woman comes into both of their lives. Her name is Nuray (played by Dizdar), and she is an English teacher at a bigger school where Samet would probably like to work.
Samet meets Nuray for the first time at her school’s cafeteria. It’s sort of like a blind date for both of them. Nuray, who happens to be disabled, is intelligent and witty. She lost her part of a leg to amputation during a suicide bomber attack. Nuray’s parents don’t know that she was involved in radical political activism that led to her being near this bomb.
Later, Kenan meets Nuray when Samet introduces the both of them to each other. Kenan and Nuray seem to like each other a lot and have instant chemistry together. However, jealous Samet can’t bear the thought of Kenan having a more successful love life. Things happen in this love triangle, where someone inevitably gets emotionally hurt.
It’s never said out loud in the movie, by Samet seems to have big secrets about why he ended up in Incescu. For example, “About Dry Grasses” doesn’t reveal why Samet moved from his preferred big city of Istanbul to live in the remote town of Incescu. Samet tells anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t like small-town life.
It’s very easy to speculate that maybe Samet left Istanbul because he was running away from something. The movie leaves it up to interpretation, but it’s a logical guess that maybe Samet got involved in a scandal in Istanbul, considering how sneaky and dishonest Samet is revealed to be in this movie.
Meanwhile, the discovery of a love letter throws things into chaos for Samet. The movie shows whether or not he gets out of this predicament and the lengths that he will go to in those efforts to not get into trouble. “About Dry Grasses” has some scenes that are intriguing and suspenseful and other scenes that are just of long conversations (usually at a dinner table) of people talking about mostly mundane things.
Boredom might set in for some viewers during this lengthy movie, but what will probably keep people interested is to see what happens to Samet. How long will he continue to juggle the various sides of his personality? Dizdar gives a very skilled performance of someone who just might be a sociopath but is pretty good at hiding it from most people.
Samet also has a great deal of self-loathing. The movie gets its title from a line that he says near the end of the film whene he comments that dry grasses are “worthless, like my life.” Ironically, the person in the movie who is the first to see Samet for who he really is the one whose judgment is questioned the most. “About Dry Grasses” shows in effective ways how warning signs about a problematic person can be ignored because people don’t want to admit that they could be fooled by a manipulative liar.
Sideshow and Janus Films released “About Dry Grasses” in select U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.