Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da)

Turkey (2011) Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

On a dark blustery night, a trio of cars make their way to the Anatolian steppe in as police, gravediggers, a doctor and the state prosecutor are in search of a dead body which had been interred there. The chief suspect of the murder, Kenan (Firat Tanis), was intoxicated at the time and thus cannot clearly remember where he and his mentally challenged brother Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz) buried the body.

Picking up the Grand Prix award in Cannes, this latest offering from Nuri Bilge Ceylan is something of a turning point for the director notorious for his slow paced, often inert films, such as Climates, that are carried through sublime acting performances and superb cinematography. While these aspects are still very much present, it seems that Ceylan has matured as a screenwriter and has finally taken on linear narratives and topics beyond his normal fare of domestic friction to bring us a deceptive murder mystery which doubles as a character study of how men suffer at the hands of women and children, something which crops up through the many idle and psuedo-philosophical discussions that take place at regular intervals.

The general thrust of this film is to allow the viewer to witness the police procedure for such a heinous crime and the pitfalls that come with an unreliable suspect first hand. Police Commissar Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan) heads the team driving cross country in search of the misplaced body, along with Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) and city doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). The search carries on through the night and into the next morning and we follow them every point of the way, from the fruitless stop offs due to Kenan’s shaky memory to a well earned break at a nearby village where they are welcomed and fed. During this stop, Kenan accidentally reveals that the dispute between him and the deceased was over Kenan’s claims to being the father of other man’s son.

A film long thread that also carries with it a secret undertone comes in the form of a conversation between Cemal and Nurset about an unusual case Nurset recently presided over. A woman apparently predicted the exact time of her own death, which occurred shortly after the birth of her child. There was no autopsy as the cause was dismissed as natural causes but Cemal remains cynical with some suggestions of his own about the cause of death. While nothing about this is resolved, there is an implicit sense that Nurset is/was a lot closer to the case than he lets on, tying it in to the theme of strained relationships between men and women. The latter, while a palpable looming presence, get scant screen time but their appearances are significant.

With a running time of two and half hours, Ceylan demands  a lot from the viewer with a number of scenes are made up of protracted car journeys – either shot from a distance or from the point of view of the driver – or lingering shots of the main cast caught in thoughtful or conflicted moods. This is a facet of Ceylan’s films that divide opinion, either welcomed by the more arthouse tolerant viewer or a source of irritation for those who prefer more bang for their buck. Truth be told this film could have done with some trimming and may work better for it, but that is not to dismiss all of these scenes; the cinematography cannot be faulted and as occasionally ponderous they may be they are beautifully shot and constructed.

The first half of the film is shot at night yet with just a few car headlights and the dull moonlight for illumination, the images are still vibrant and captivating. The location shifts back to the city for the daytime scenes but the brooding atmosphere from the desolate countryside still permeates through every frame like a gloomy spectre. Keeping the atmosphere authentic are the cast, who deliver non-contrived performances that are free from artifice to keep things moving along with a natural rhythm. There are no pretty boys here, all the cast are easily acceptable in their roles, adding so much to the overall experience.

With its excessive running time, scaled down no frills filming methods and deliberate pace, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has little chance of mainstream penetration despite it arguably being Ceylan’s most accessible film to date. But, cinema is a subjective thing and as such there is an audience for a film such as this, and for them this will be a sublime, challenging but rich piece of world cinema.