Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

A slow-burning meditation on the relationships between men and women disguised as an obsessive police procedural, Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia plays out like Andrei Tarkovsky’s CSI: Ankara, a two and a half hour epic about a parade of cops and killers trawling the remote hillsides around a rural town, searching for a murder victim’s corpse.

Outlining the plot takes substantially less effort than the commitment and attention Ceylan’s film requires. After an unhurried preamble that introduces us to a man about to die, the story opens with a static shot of a convoy of three cars winding along a rough country road at night, their headlights streaming across a grassy hillside. The three cars contain a stern group of middle-aged men, including Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), Police Commissioner Naci (Yilmax Erdogan) and hospital Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). In the back of the police car, they have a grim, bruised prisoner, the self-confessed killer Kenan (Firat Tanis). Kenan, who barely speaks, has agreed to lead the policemen to the corpse, but is having trouble remembering the exact location. There is a tree, he says, and a stream beside a field. But there are a lot of trees and streams and fields. The search will take all night.

Ceylan uses a three-part structure, with a few short scenes serving as transitions. The convoy visits a series of locations in the rural hinterland before they take a break at a small village. There, they all sit around in circles eating a meal as the local mayor fills their ears with requests for funds to help modernise the village. The final act brings the convoy back to town, and the sterile halls of the hospital, where the doctor, his cantankerous assistant and a police recorder undertake a lengthy post-mortem, dissecting the body they have disinterred, and the events we have just watched.

This description might make Once Upon a Time in Anatolia sound prosaic, even dull, but this is a film so delicate that any attempt to analyze it might, like an archaeologist digging through an Egyptian tomb, cause everything to crumble into dust. Ceylan’s screenplay (co-written with his wife Ebru and his Three Monkeys screenwriter Ercan Kesal) contains a whole world of suggestion, forcing the audience to piece together the tiny details of everything that came before. What appears to be a simple cop story evolves into a complex, multi-layered human drama, a compelling examination of Turkish manhood and a cutting critique of an economically depressed country on the cusp of European assimilation. Ceylan constructs his film through a careful accretion of terse exchanges, quick glances, gestures and passing moments that remain suggestions, implying a story far deeper and darker than the one being told.

What ties the three sections together is the introduction of a female presence into this all-male world. In the first sequence, the police captain’s wife calls him on his mobile to remind him of an errand while later the prosecutor tells the doctor a story about a woman of his acquaintance who prophesied her own death. In the second section, a bridge between night and day, a beautiful girl emerges from a house in the village to send each of the men into a stunned reverie, underlined by a quick shot of a burning lamp surrounded by moths. Finally, in the concluding part, the victim’s wife appears at the hospital to witness his post mortem, her stoic silence acting as a blank wall against which Ceylan bounces a series of unanswerable questions.

This mature, involving and endlessly fascinating drama was a deserved winner of last year’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix. Ceylan the visual stylist places his characters in a spectacularly moody nocturnal landscape, but it is the emotional resonant characters and the inquisitive performances that are the most compelling. The questions continue long after the credits roll.

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