REVIEW: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Builds a Slow-Moving But Visually Potent Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Tectonic pacing builds to a series of imperceptible and yet earth-moving moments in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a habeas corpus procedural stretched across two and a half discursive hours. The setup -- a policeman, a lawyer, and a doctor head into the Turkish countryside -- has the ring of an old joke, something Ceylan never forgets as the groups's long night and next day wears on. A mix of mordant wit and metaphysical waxing carries the men toward their respective fates, each having more to do with the buried body they are seeking than it first appears.
Technically, the search for the body of a local garage-owner named Yasar is led by a decent but fraying police commissioner named Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan). Sawing Naci’s last nerve is the tormented murder suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), whose claim of forgetting exactly where his victim is buried keeps the caravan moving from spot to remote spot all through the night.
Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) is tagging along in case the body actually turns up, as is Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). Despite Turkish genes and enigmatically pitted cheeks, everyone eventually agrees that the former bears a resemblance to Clark Gable; the latter enjoys the consensus that he is still a young man with his whole life ahead of him, though he wears the weight of a recent divorce in his handsome face. The only shared opinion about the comically rotund Arab Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) is that he should probably talk less and drive more. When he does speak, however, it becomes clear that Arab is the only one of the men with an untroubled perspective on life, a viable blend of rural pragmatism and a lyrical sense of life’s story.
The first half of the film comprises scenes of casual en route quibbling -- the dialogue is permeated by the narcissism of small, mostly tribal differences -- about who makes better yogurt, who is peeing too often, and who knows the fastest way where. At each hopeful juncture the men pile out of their cars and fall into new configurations. In one of the first stops the doctor and the driver compare moods -- where one sees the seemingly pointless night as a Beckett play, the other finds a fairy tale. Later, when the men stop for the night at the compound of a local Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal), the prosecutor tells the doctor the story of a young woman who predicted her own death -— a cherished allegory the doctor dismisses on medical grounds. But if he’s right, the question lingers: What meaning is left in the rational world?
The answer, or one possible answer, or maybe just a refusal of the question, arrives in the form of a woman. The appearance of the Mukhtar’s beauteous teenage daughter (Cansu Demirci) breaks the film’s all-male filibuster, and to welcome her Ceylan rolls out a brocaded cinematic carpet. In contrast to the previous hour’s lighting scheme of cold-beamed, dueling headlights, the girl’s singular, incandescent approach feels celestial. Balancing an oil lamp on a platter of brimming teacups, she lowers the glasses before the innocent and condemned alike. Despite not getting a line (or even a credit in the press notes), she’s meant to embody everything that’s worth living for in a low-down, dirty world.
Such a pity, the men remark, that it will all be wasted on a backwater town. It’s a literal spotlight of a sequence, and I suspect if Ceylan weren’t so expert at stretching his weakness for the obvious across such a vast and blissfully well-composed canvas, it would make a splotchier impact. For this skill he is often compared to Bresson and Antonioni, and if Ceylan shares his characters’ hopes for Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union, I imagine his inclusion in the tradition Pauline Kael called “Come-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties” would be flattering on geographical terms alone. He’s too funny and multi-faceted to be trapped by Euro-arthouse cliché, though, too interested in the absurdist flipside of existential dread.
When the sun comes up and the body is finally, dreadfully unearthed, Anatolia (from the Greek for “sunrise”) is only half over. The more details the men collect and record, the less they seem to know -- or want to know -- and the further their minds drift to women, who are mentioned often and without warning, as if to confirm the heart of every moody silence.
Silence and sound are deployed as artfully as Ceylan’s sweeping master shots are. In lieu of a soundtrack he contrasts near and far noises, interior voices and exterior perspectives, a layering effect that either culminates or terminates in the final scene, where the music of children playing outside a hospital mingles with the visceral notes of a body being broken down like a roast chicken. It becomes impossible to hear one without the other, hard as you might try.