Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

by Indy Datta

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film was the joint winner – along with the Dardennes’ The Kid With a Bike – of the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes film festival, and has since been widely  acclaimed as his masterpiece.  At the very least it is his most thematically expansive and formally ambitious work since his international breakthrough, 2002’s Distant. But as always with Ceylan, I find myself stranded uneasily between admiration and scepticism, dazzled by the technical mastery, unable to shake the suspicion that there’s less to the film than meets the eye, yet on some level aware that the failing is probably mine.

Anatolia begins with a prologue in which we watch through a window as three men share a drink in a breezeblock-walled room. Without explanation, we cut to a makeshift caravan of police and army vehicles winding its way through the soft hills and barren steppes of central Turkey. The police are looking for the body of a murder victim – one of the three drinkers. One of the other men has confessed to the murder, and has been brought along for the ride, but says he was so drunk he can’t remember where he dumped the body.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the search, as the party stumbles farcically from one location to the next, as evening turns to night and night turns to morning, driven by the flimsiest of the confessor’s clues and recollections (and misdirections). This long sequence lives up to the buzz – the harmony between form and content makes the film resonate like a plucked string. As the night draws in Ceylan and his cinematographer Gökhan Tyriaki restrict themselves strictly  to motivated light sources – car headlights, torches, and the moon (the one “fake” light used – actually a 25kw softbox suspended from a crane). The darkness of the night, rendered in impeccable compositions in velvety HD digital, yields as little to the visual interrogation of the police, as they shunt and manoeuvre their cars this way and that to shed light on different subjects, as the ostensible narrative does to our understanding.

All the while, while nothing appears to be happening in the official plot, Ceylan is filling in the interstices of his fictional thematic world through the interactions of his characters and his depiction of the world around them. Cops and soldiers bicker absurdly about jurisdiction and whether people remembered to bring the right equipment. The doctor, brought along to pronounce the victim dead, and the local prosecutor swap stories that reveal something of their backgrounds and personalities. In an echo of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (a second echo, to add to all the long shots of cars driving randomly and futilely around a Middle-Eastern rural landscape) an apple rolls erratically down a hill and into a creek, where it comes to rest among a moraine of rotting fruit.

Some of this occasionally feels rather effortful  – the quotation from the Kiarostami superimposed on Ceylan’s usual visual and thematic referents, Tarkovsky and Antonioni, perhaps particularly so. And the stories that the doctor and the prosecutor tell each other may not illuminate character and theme as much as they are intended to – something I felt most acutely in the film’s last section, back in town the next day, when the protagonists have to face up to what they discovered during the night, and some salient background facts are possibly revealed. In the cold light of day, stripped of the clarity bestowed by beams of light slicing through the dark, the film seemed to me at first blush to give itself over to an unfocussed, somewhat banal fug of weltschmerz (I would say hüzün, but I don’t want the pretentiousness police knocking on my door in the night).

But, despite my scepticism, all of Ceylan’s films (except perhaps for Three Monkeys, which made little impression on me) are initially difficult but look richer in the rear view mirror (and also, to be fair, when I read smarter people than me writing about them), and there’s something in the schism between those daytime and night time sections.  The heightened register of the nocturnal search has the clarity of a dream, or a fairytale (hence the title) – the return to the mundane daytime carries echoes of the return from the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. That film has presumably a touchstone for Ceylan since well before the excellent joke in Distant where the sophisticated and intellectual photographer protagonist keeps turning over from the Tarkovsky to the porn when he thinks his rube country cousin isn’t watching. It’s worth noting here that, as with Distant, and all of Ceylan’s films since, the darkness and complexity of Anatolia is leavened with a good helping of delicious black comedy.

If there’s a sequence in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia that could be considered to cement its masterpiece status, maybe it’s the one that comes after the police have spent most of the night fruitlessly searching, and repair to the mayor’s house in a local village. Over a shared meal, talk turns to the way the village is dying (literally: and the mayor can’t afford to build a refrigerated morgue to keep the bodies of the old from rotting away before their children return from Germany or further afield to bury them), and after the meal the mayor’s beautiful daughter brings the lawmen and their prisoners drinks. The lamp she carries, which seems to become almost part of her, casts a different light to the car headlight beams that have lit the way up to this point – comforting rather than forensic, almost spiritual:  it draws the men into its glow rather than seeking to uncloak them from the darkness. It’s the kind of light, it turns out, that might make a man want to unburden or reveal himself.

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2 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

  1. I enjoyed parts of it very much, but it was too long by about 20 minutes (the rest of the audience seemingly thought so too, they were all a bit fidgety towards the end) and it did that abrupt ending thing that Meeks Cutoff did, which always leaves me with about a million questions. I like a tidy ending, I do.

    I’m glad I saw it, but I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone.

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