The sensuous and grave rhythms of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia have a peculiar and dazzling cumulative impact. Through its serpentine hold, the movie violates narrative expectation to probe something fare more mysterious, knotty and entrancing.
From its visual precision to the emotional believability of the characters and their sad, beautiful and emphatic faces, I was knocked out at how original and astonishing is the movie’s visual syntax. The movie needs time to breathe and seep in.
The fifth feature by Turkey’s most important contemporary director and one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers in international art-filmmaking, Anatolia is a brave and dazzling work that uses genre material as a meditation on the most serious moral and existential concerns.
The story is fairly plainspoken. A man has been murdered and a disparate group is tasked to find his hidden corpse. The police procedural, lined by routine, repetition and frustration, suggests an unmistakable elusiveness, regarding motivation, circumstance, history and behavior. Like the greatest filmmakers, Ceylan is both elliptical and lapidary. The work is beautifully made and constructed, but information is parceled out with great care and discretion. Ceylan’s cryptic though elastic style casually hooks you, implicating those in its mysteries and wonder.
The movie opens with an enigmatic prologue where we see three associates strikingly framed and arranged in a desultory room adjoining a service station. The scene is marked also by abundantly discordant sounds, the source either the electronic buzz of the television or the contentious banter (the dialogue here is not subtitled) of the three men.
The proper story follows a small convoy, two cars and a Jeep, containing a battery of forensic specialists (a doctor, a district attorney, police officers, a couple of soldiers) moving through the darkened, enveloping and majestic steppes and twisted roads of Anatoli. The formal search unit is tasked with discovering exact location where the accused have disposed of the corpse.
At the start, Ceylan beautifully modulates the tension and discomfort through class, social distinction and physical contrasts of the sharply individuated characters. The men are uncomfortably wedged together in the claustrophobic interior of the car. The camera, largely mounted in a reverse-angle and presenting mostly unvarnished images of the men, is direct and enveloping.
The earthy humor and small talk of the cops gives way to the more serious intellectual and moral inquiries of the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and the district attorney (Taner Birsel). The police officials are bulky and stout, with their craggy, lined faces. The professionals more circumspect. The primary suspect (Firat Tanis) is a haunted, ghost-like, his gaunt, inexpressive face the most unkind of masks.
The movie is tactile and lived in. The images of beauty and sadness pop off the screen. Like his equally brilliant Distant and Climates, Ceylan demonstrates again an extraordinary ability to ground his protagonists against telling and evocative landscapes. He has a great feel not just for painterly objects and tableau imagery, but for movement, like an absolutely electric moment in the first hour.
In the daunting landscapes of the Turkish outback, a man hungry and tired of all the standing around and anxious for something to happen pulls at an apple tree. Ceylan tracks the stray fruit roll down the embankment and falling into the water, the soundtrack humming with contrapuntal sounds and the hectic, busy talk of the assorted group.
The stray, beautiful moment is echoed later when the group seeks sanctuary in a local village. The mukhtar (Ercan Kesal), or leader, regaling his exalted guests with own ghost stories is dismayed by an electrical outage that plunges the room into darkness.
He orders his daughter, the youngest of his four children, “an afterthought,” he almost cruelly observes, to bring drinks and the young woman, beautiful and aglow, enters, her gorgeous face lit by candle. In a glancing moment, Ceylan gives weight and meaning to the unaccountable.
Just as elliptically, the movie’s dark and lustrous palette shifts to a murky light of the next day, signaled by another reverse angle shot of the car’s windshield moving through the windswept terrain. Ceylan is an artist who justifies digital. I still prefer film, but Ceylan’s photorealistic use of the format breaks down my own resistance. The opening draws on the darkness and nighthawk as a kind of annihilation, emblematic of the movie’s futile quest and dead ends.
The light gives way to certain tangible benefits. The glory of the movie is that as Ceylan satisfies certain narrative threads poised by the start, he opens up new doubts and peculiarities. The certainties of law and science represented by the film’s two professionals proves starkly insufficient.
Ceylan’s previous movie, Three Monkeys, was fairly harshly (unfairly, I thought) reviewed at Cannes a couple of years ago. I consent the movie was not at the level of the director’s strongest work but it shifted his milieu and point of view to a less savory, animalistic kind of character. In retrospect, it was necessary transitional piece.
Women, like the beautiful young girl in the village, are spectral, even fragmentary beings, glimpsed on a computer screen, or hovering and barely seen, like the victim’s widow, their destinies and circumstances unduly tragic and heartfelt. Explicitly acknowledged by the title, Ceylan’s movie is fundamentally concerned with telling stories. The movie’s narrative subversions are all the more pronounced and devastating.
What makes the journey extraordinary is not finding answers through submitting to the ride.