Monday, November 5, 2012

DVD Review: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

The haunting Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, directed with great precision and assurance by world-class filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, shared the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival with The Kid With A BikeI caught it earlier in the year at the Sydney Film Festival, but due to unsuitable circumstances to watch a film of this length and tone, I had the desire to watch it again in an attempt to unpack its mysteries.

The film opens in the dead of night as a group of men in three cars - including a police commissioner (Yilmaz Erdogan), a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and a murder suspect (Firat Tanis) - drive through the tenebrous Anatolian countryside, the serpentine roads and rolling hills lit only by the headlights of their cars. They are searching for the corpse of a local man who has recently been buried there. The suspect, who has confessed to the murder, claims he was drunk at the time and can't remember where he buried the body. The convoy drives from spot to spot, often captured in a lengthy unbroken shot as they approach their destination from a distance, and search for signs that distinguish it as the burial ground.

The story unravels like a police procedural, but it is unconventional to say the least. Realistically, events unfold at a natural pace and only when the characters are ready to converse or take action. If a character needs to step out and urinate, the rest of the group waits and converses about matters both trivial (yoghurt) and poignant (death), and we wait along with them. This is a simmering drama that is less about action, and more about philosophizing, building atmosphere and developing character. 

Sometimes we follow the commissioner as he escorts his prisoner to examine the land, and sometimes they disappear and we are privileged to conversations take place between those that remain behind. The focus shifts between multiple characters (the aforementioned ones predominantly, but also the Commissioner’s driver, a forensic assistant and a military sergeant), with the doctor and prosecutor becoming the most intriguing, sharing their considerations on a recurring story, which offers substantial thematic meaning to the film. As the search draws on and night becomes day, further details about the murder begin to emerge and the unorthodox, and often inept, law-enforcers begin to reveal their own secrets and hypocrisies. In the Anatolian steppes, nothing is what it seems and what transpires will seep into the consciousness of a patient and intuitive viewer and long linger in the mind.

There are a couple of running themes throughout this sprawling drama. One is the fact that children pay for their parents’ mistakes, and the other is the angelic beauty of women. There are two female characters that play a small but significant role. The men’s infatuation with the beautiful daughter of a village leader, who they briefly meet after stopping to eat and rest, seems to change them. This stop also includes some fascinating commentary about rural bureaucracy as the elder shares his frustration about not receiving the finances to build a morgue, despite most of the residents being elderly and a concerning rate of mortality.

Almost every character has some form of emotional turmoil when it comes to women. The commissioner is bullied by his wife via phone calls, the doctor is divorced, and the prosecutor recounts a tale about a beautiful woman who predicted correctly that she would die immediately following giving birth to the child she was carrying. We understand that this could be a tale recounted by the prosecutor from his own experience. He claims that there was no explanation for the death, but the rational doctor is skeptical, and probes into the possibilities surrounding her death. He learns a lesson throughout this tale, and though it is not explicitly shown in the final scenes, one can’t deny the immense power of a calculated close-up.

Now, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia requires patience, attention and disciplined viewing, because all of the conversations play a role in crafting these characters. The film’s languid pacing ensures this is a challenging film; and following my first viewing I described it as a slog. That is not the case at all. The repetitive motions of the characters; the sense that they have no idea what they are looking for or where they are going is imperative in establishing a catalyst for their developing boredom and teasing out who they are.

There are beautiful shots of the illuminated grass and unforgiving surrounding hills, which make the men appear tiny and insignificant. The characters are flawed and undeniably human and the performances are incredibly naturalistic, with Uzuner and Birsel standing out. It is never obvious that these men are acting at all. Their exchanges are heartfelt and delivered with thought and feeling.

They start to speculate about what happened to the body and converse about an array of topics - quitting smoking, their families and their dissatisfaction with their jobs – and Ceylan conveys this abnormal procedural (which is littered with moving moments) in almost real-time. Many investigations are not exciting events; they require lots of idle activity, but this has a dreamy, otherworldly feel to it. To further heighten the tone there is a complete absence of a score, but the sound design features enhanced natural sounds meaning that the wind sweeping across the hills and the approaching thunder have even more impact.

Once the body is found – and I won’t divulge the circumstances or what transpires after – the film becomes more calculated in the second half. It is not about the search anymore, or even determining what happened, it becomes about the characters being stripped apart, examined in different ways, the choices and sacrifices made by individuals, and the line between life and death.

Despite having a few more questions answered – and the final scene is extraordinary - this still left me pondering. It is a fascinating, enlightening and astutely philosophical procedural that is thematically rich, and features intriguing characters that each offer up different readings on the human condition. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is an artist. Every sequence is cleverly conceived and beautifully put together, and his surprisingly comic screenplay is subtle and understated. A stunning technical achievement (Gokhan Tiryaki’s striking digital cinematography recalls CinemaScope and features some of the finest work I have seen this year), Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a mesmerizing drama, compelling from the opening frame to the last. 

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)


  1. It's an impressive film. I really want to see it again at the cinema. I loved its ability to unfocus from the events and to pull in seemingly unrelated details and make them entirely relevant. Top notch.

  2. I missed this when it came to my local cinema, but have heard great things about it since - not least this review. I'm definitely going to put this on my Christmas list.

  3. This sounds like the kind of movie I'd love! You had me on "police procedural" and "unconventional." :-)

  4. One of my favorites from last year. You're right, this really isn't a film well suited for a grueling festival day. Glad you gave it another chance!