Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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Laura Clifford 
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Robin Clifford 

A three vehicle convoy lights its way through the dark settling on a serpentine road snaking through the hills of rural turkey.  Police chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) has assured Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) that his prime suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), will identify the site where the victim of a brutal homicide lies, but Kenan was drunk that night and the group of men will continue their travels into the next day "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia."

Cowriter (with wife Ebru and Ercan Kesal)/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan ("Distant," "Three Monkeys") uses a matter of life and death to look at the mundane, human nature, and the mystical effect of women on men in his sixth feature film, a masterpiece.  Shot on the Sony F35, this is one of the most painterly of digitally shot films, enhanced with a sound design which isolates moments in nature in lieu of a musical score.

The film follows the basic outline of a police procedural, but Ceylan isn't really interested in the crime (twice his camera leads us along, thinking we will find the body, only to make another point entirely). In the lead car, Naci talks to the doctor about a local yogurt with the texture of cheese.  His driver, Arab Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), knows it, his mother used to make it and, he says, it smells.  Their talk is interrupted by the theme from Love Story - it is Naci's ringtone and his wife has called to harangue him about a prescription he forgot to fill for their child.  All are quiet as Naci seeks to placate her.  Food.  Medicine.  Nurture.  Woman.

The three cars keep stopping at various points where Naci admits defeat and promises the next stop will yield results.  The talk, like that opening conversation, is often humorous, just as often banal, but as the evening progresses and the Prosecutor and Doctor kill time, it becomes poetic.  The talk, of course, turns to women.  The prosecutor intrigues the doctor with the tale of the most beautiful woman he ever saw, who predicted her own death as she awaited the birth of her child. ' After hours on the road, it is decided that the group must overnight (followed by the slapstick indecision as to what route to take).  The local mayor, Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal, "Three Monkeys"), offers food and lodging, but immediately adds his weight to the visiting political hierarchy by maneuvering for funds to build a morgue. When the lights go out, he calls for his daughter, Cemile (Cansu Demirci), to bring lanterns, and each man, in turn, is awed by her beauty when she turns her gaze on him.  In this humble place, these men have found the utterly unexpected.  Kenan cries and Naci calls for the prosecutor with a potential new twist in the investigation, involving another beautiful woman.

Turkey's submission for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar tied with "The Kid with a Bike" for the 2011 Cannes Grand Jury prize, but inexplicably failed to garner a nomination from the Academy in a category it should have won.  This mesmerizing film is like an object d'art which one keeps turning in one's hands, always finding something new to consider.  The main characters keep shuffling their standing, the prosecutor most obviously keeping score as he tells the doctor to ignore Naci, that he's 'just a handful of bees as my mother used to say.'  Of another officer, who offers cream biscuits and precise information, 'The butcher thinks about the meat, the lamb, the knife.'  And yet Nusret is the man who unveils perhaps the most devastating truth about himself (Birsel is a standout in a great ensemble).  Kenan turns out to be an almost Christ-like figure, a man accepting the sin of another who is stoned by the murdered man's boy who may be his son.

Cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki ("Climates," "Three Monkeys"), with colors and shapes like a Grant Wood landscape at dusk, is stunning.  Sounds of distant thunder, cicadas and the wind through the trees bring us back to earth, as do the homey sayings studded throughout, rich with wisdom.  Ceylan shifts back and forth among boredom, melancholic beauty and humor with ease, his characters each offering different aspects of the human condition.

They come around all too rarely these days, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a masterpiece.


Three cars race through the pitch darkness of rural Turkey and stop at a remote, barren spot. Men emerge from the vehicles and one, in shackle, is asked, “Is this the spot?” This begins an all night quest to find the body of a murder victim “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”

A film that has little action and runs for two and one half hours might be considered, by some, as boring pretention. In the hands of Turkish master helmer/writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan – we saw his earlier film, “Distant,” at a film festival a few years ago without English subtitles and the story was still crystal clear – the 150 minutes fly by. Like Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, Ceylan uses his camera as a painter does his brush, paints and canvas. Each scene is an absolute masterpiece with a brilliant use of light and darkness. Dialog is sparse and often times borders on the mundane as the cops, killing time on the road, talk about yoghurt, marriage and kids all the while search for the corpse. Still, everything about the film is compelling from beginning to end.

“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” while quiet in tone, is rich in its character studies – Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), police commissar Nasi (Yilmaz Erdogan), forensics Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) (often the comic relief in the film), the suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis, who says a great deal in his silence) and village elder Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal) – and each is given fully developed characters – the commissar, for example, is henpecked; and  the doctor and others are smitten with the elder’s beautiful daughter Cemile (Cansu Demirci). Beautiful women are a subtle but important part of “Anatolia,” adding to the human complexity of this marvelous work of art.

Sound is organic to the story and takes the place of a music score. Actually, the filmmakers use sound – the constant winds blowing across the barren land – as music and this lends to the masterpiece that is “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.” This is one of those rare films that I give an A.
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