Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
A Film By Nuri Bile Ceylan
As the title might suggest, landscape may be the most crucial character in the dark and elliptical Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. As the men we follow progress through the night, the clear plains and trees seem to carry on into the distance without end. These men are lost in a world where not much exists beyond the trees and the slowly fading sun. Like the opening shots of Abbas Kiaraostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, they are dwarfed among the plains in their small cars, which become their only source of light as their search continues into the long night.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is the latest work from Turkish director Nuri Bile Ceylan, best known for his 2006 film Climates. Mr. Ceylan’s latest feature is both an epic as well as an intimate and minimalist portrayal of daily life. Shot gorgeously along the Anatolian plains, this occasionally frustrating work attempts to explore a lot of different themes and ideas, as well as characters, but through a small prism of access in which we our limited by the realism of how people truly act. But as it slowly treks toward some sort of conclusion, this police procedural is a unique and assuredly bold attempt to explore a number of notions about the existence of human life, or at least something of that matter.
Mr. Ceylan certainly attempts to cram much into this bizarre story of life, the universe, everything. It starts out strongly, as we watch three cars come along a fountain at sunset. The men step outside and begin a search for a body. The police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan) demands answers from the murderer (Fırat Tanış), who can’t exactly remember where the body is buried. Perhaps it was less hilly. It may have been near a round tree. He was a bit drunk. The men continue their calm and slow search, often bantering between each other about yogurt and other small talk. The center of the film comes in the form of a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and a prosecutor (Taner Birsel). Neither have a purpose until the body is found, and the two begin waxing philosophically about life, including a discussion about a friend’s wife who announced she would die in exactly five months and then proceeded to do so.
Mr. Ceylan’s tonal perspective is somewhat difficult to describe. It’s hardly an observation of the mundane in the way a film like Police, Adjective draws us out into its absurdity, but he never seems interested in the case at hand. The reasons for the murder are only subtly hinted at, and the character of the victim is thinly sketched. Instead, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia seems to try to conjure up some sense of a search for spirituality or at least meaning in life (Only the police chief becomes frustrated by the ridiculous search and its length). Mr. Ceylan, working with director of photography Gökhan Tiryaki, reflects this search through the beautiful use of light in this first half. The headlights of the car, always being readjusted to shoot along the land, have an aural quality similar to the candlelight we come along later. Putting our characters into silhouettes, they become almost archetypes (or as one character jokes to the prosecutor, Clarke Gable).
As Once Upon a Time in Anatolia proceeds through its narrative, it seems to want to capture a little of everything. A woman serves tea to the police in the middle of the night, and each man is struck by her beauty. An apple rolls down a hill and through a river, and we track its progress. One man can’t stop grabbing fresh melons from the countryside. There are a lot of moments that seem to grasp toward some greater truth in Mr. Ceylan’s world, especially as the film attempts to dig into some brutal truths about its characters in its final act. But what this truth is seems inescapable for both the characters and the film, an unattainable truth of what is life perhaps.
Part of this is of course by design by Mr. Ceylan, who based the event partially on a true story he heard. Despite its fairy tale title, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggests a slice of life that is absurdly cryptic by design, but full of moments that carve out this little strange idea we call human existence. It’s a film about humanity that is unsure about what such a notion holds as any philosopher would suggest.