There are not enough superlatives in the world that would let me aptly describe Once Upon a Time In Anatolia. A Grand Jury prize winner at Cannes, the sixth feature from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a deeply involving existential crime-drama. Both bleak and beautiful, the picture is just so rich, the words so stunning and the acting beyond comparison.
At it’s crudest, Once Upon a Time In Anatolia is a film about redemption, mercy and misery. It starts at dusk, with a group of men venturing into the Turkish countryside to find the body of a murder victim. It’s an odd group, comprised of a police chief and his officers, a public prosecutor, a doctor, some diggers, guards, the confessed killer Kenan (Ferat Tanis) and his mentally challenged younger brother, Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz). Driving across the barren landscape, Kenan is awfully reticent, unable to recall the exact place where the body is kept. He also doesn’t seem like the conventional killer: timid, polite he’s even reduced to tears on three separate occasions throughout this torturous night. Whether they are tears of regret or genuine sorrow is up to the audience to judge.
The night drags on into dawn, and the men grow increasingly frustrated. Taking respite in the shanty house of a village mayor during an electrical power cut, the group drop in and out of sleep, haunted by an image of the mayor’s beautiful, candlelit daughter. When morning breaks, the search for a body becomes a hunt for something far more intangible. Beneath the desolation, car headlights, expressionistic shadows and treacherous ravines is the pursuit for masculinity and the buried secrets the men are carrying on heavy, tired shoulders.
What’s so striking in Anatolia is Ceylan and his co-writers – brother Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesel (who plays the village mayor) – are able to shift so gracefully between profound, poetical dialogue, to the slapstick, the mystical, satirical and the genuinely haunting. Very early on in their pursuit, some of the men irreverently natter in the car about the difference between buffalo yoghurt and cheese; followed by the more prescient, harrowing image of a face carved into rock, a totem of sorts from the ancient tribe who once roamed this squalid land. Even at a staggering 2.5 hours running time, Ceylan has an incredible ability to keep us enthralled and guessing where the film will take us next.
Just like Iranian maestro Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, and the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, location in Anatolia becomes it’s own sort of character. With the beautiful cinematography of Gökhan Tiryaki, one of the film’s most memorable moments is it’s smallest: two long takes of an apple falling off a tree, rolling across the desert and floating away down a stream, to the sounds of the Prosecutor and stern police chief arguing. Perhaps it’s symbolism on the brevity of life in contemporary, emasculated Turkey, or maybe it’s just a pretty little aside from the heavy drama elsewhere. Whilst Ceylan is first and foremost a storyteller, his intricate framing makes us look at the world anew, not dissimilar from activist Godfrey Reggio’s visual essays, The Qatsi Trilogy.
Subtle framing meets the subtle delights of the onscreen performers. Whilst there is no central character, Taner Birsel is so captivating as ‘The Prosecutioner’; a man trying to document the truth of the murder case, whilst wrestling with the unspoken truths of his past. He’s also very funny too, breaking the dour tone with jokes about how he was once told he resembled Clark Gable. Poetical once again, even as the most distinguished member of the group, he can’t help but wish he were somewhere else other than in this purgatorial situation.
Yes, Anatolia is long and moves at a glacial pace, the middle act is confusing and the Turkish political allegory will certainly slip through the brains of the uninitiated (i.e. me). It’s difficult cinema, but why should art cinema be easy?
Ceylan has an unmatched ability to render down the audience, to test us, and even lead us to question his own creative intentions. Once we get to the film’s revealing, yet still ambiguous closing moments, he reels us back in, the credits roll, and it’s impossible to deny his genius.