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CIFF 2023: Explanation for Everything, About Dry Grasses, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World

The Gold Hugo winner at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival went to one of three remarkably long films I saw at the fest this year, but all three reminded me (mostly) that length is only a number if a filmmaker can justify the runtime. Actually, Gábor Reisz’s 151-minute “Explanation for Everything” is the shortest film of the trio. There’s something in the water lately when it comes to long movies, and Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan aren’t the only ones drinking it.

“Explanation for Everything” is the one film of these three that I would argue feels a bit self-indulgent in its meandering runtime, but what the film does well is so riveting and conversation-starting that it’s forgivable. Still, I wondered if there isn’t a version of this same story that trims some fat and emerges a masterpiece. This one is close enough.

Abel (Adonyi-Walsh Gáspár) is a student in Budapest who is taking his final exams, but he finds himself more distracted by a crush on a classmate named Janka (Lilla Kizlinger), who has her own crush on her married, much older teacher, Jakab (András Rusznák). Whether or not what unfolds in “Explanation for Everything” is a product of jealousy is one of many fascinating questions that Reisz lets the audience unpack, but it starts when Abel fails his history final exam. When assigned two subjects on which to give an oral presentation, the young man freezes up. And then something that I won’t spoil happens that seems almost casual but will create a controversy in town that threatens Jakab’s career and arguably illuminates privilege in Abel’s life.

“Explanation for Everything” ultimately digs into political and social differences that have divided countries worldwide in an unexpected and remarkably insightful manner. A conversation late in the film between Jakab and Abel’s father is among the best scenes of the year, a war of words that digs into issues with intent, offense, and history that feels like a capsule version of everything from Brexit to MAGA. In a time in which the world feels deeply divided, “Explanation for Everything” proves its title to be a lie. On both sides, there will always be some things that can’t be fully explained.

I love fest coincidences, and that’s the only way to explain that another strong film from this year’s CIFF unfolds in an educational setting, again centering a misunderstanding/insult between teacher and student (and the excellent “The Teachers' Lounge” also played CIFF—it’s a trend!). Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “About Dry Grasses,” which originally premiered at Cannes, is another sharp dissection of human fallibility from the brilliant filmmaker behind “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and the Palme-winning “Winter Sleep.” More than usual, Ceylan feels loose here, turning right when you expect him to go straight, even breaking the fourth wall. There were times when I wanted more narrative cohesion and fewer diversions into the kind of deeply philosophical conversations that Ceylan seems convinced are happening in non-descript homes around Turkey every single day, but this is still an admirably ambitious film. Ceylan doesn’t make anything less.

Samet (an excellent Deniz Celiloğlu) doesn’t want to be at the snow-covered school he’s mandated to teach at before he can work in Istanbul. The sense he carries that he’s better than this small village and its people is palpable from early on, but he seems like a decent enough educator until he’s caught in the middle of a controversy that first involves a letter in a student’s bag. Before he knows what’s happening, he’s accused, along with colleague and friend Kenan (Musab Ekici), of inappropriate behavior with two students.

Just when you think “About Dry Grasses” is going to be a he-said-she-said unpacking of power between a male teacher and a female student, Ceylan pivots to focus more on a potential love triangle between Samet, Kenan, and Nuray (the incredible Merve Dizdar, who won an acting award at Cannes). Samet doesn’t seem interested initially, but jealousy makes men like him active, and he moves in to woo Nuray when she shows interest in Kenan. The suggestion seems that the student Sevim (Ece Bağci) acted out of spite when her letter wasn’t returned and that Samet similarly acts like a jealous child when he feels like he’s the third wheel.

Samet is genuinely and increasingly awful, culminating in a fantastic scene in which he mansplains to Nuray how she should feel about the suicide bomber who took half of her leg. Ceylan regularly cuts to gorgeous shots of photo portraits of locals and later features portrait art at Nuray’s apartment. It’s not a coincidence that a major scene unfolds with the word “Perspective” on the board behind Samet. This is a man who thinks he understands the concept of POV so completely that he teaches a class on it, but he wears blinders all the time, unable to put himself in the shoes of Sevim, Kenan, or Nuray without asking why they don’t fit him.

Finally, there’s the already widely beloved and very funny “Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World” by Radu Jude, the current king of the long title after 2021’s “Bad Luck Banging and Loony Porn” and 2018’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.” This time, he’s playfully skewering YouTube culture and corporate greed in a day-in-the-life comedy about a production assistant and her latest project. He has such an impressively loose filmmaking style, allowing scenes to unfold with a very unusual rhythm, which he maintains for almost three hours. (In this case, the length feels justified by how much it reveals how Angela goes about her day, fighting with strangers on the road or pulling off to shoot another clip.)

As Angela (Ilinca Manolache) drives around town gathering interview subjects for a workplace safety video, she also records videos as her alter ego, Bobita, a foul-mouthed avatar who rants enough to probably get Andrew Tate’s attention. Jude very deliberately reveals how Angela’s current project is vile on numerous levels, but it’s not like he makes his heroine a villain—she’s too distracted by her job, side hustle, and all the damn traffic to really notice.

The project leads Angela to a man who was hurt on the job and believes that she’s recording a video about what happened to him. But it becomes clear early on that he’s being used as a scapegoat by twisting his story to be one of a worker ignoring safety rules instead of a company placing one in unsafe conditions. Uwe Boll plays himself in a hysterical cameo that feels improvised, while Nina Hoss pops in as the corporate contact, who happens to be a distant relative of the actual Goethe. One of the philosopher’s quotes goes, “Why look for conspiracy when stupidity can explain so much.” It could have been the title of this film.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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