By Daniel Clemens
The trepidation I felt before watching ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, was akin to the feeling of approaching a Tarkovsky or Kubrick film for the first time. I had never seen a Turkish film, nor am I any kind of ardent fan of police procedurals. Neither of these factors discouraged me from watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sixth feature; in fact, I had been waiting for the right “moment” to view it for the past few years. These factors led to a paradoxical mixture— excitement for something that seemed exotic to my cinematic tastes, yet fear that I wouldn’t follow the film, or even worse, “get” it.
If you’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, the Grand Prix co-winner at 2011 Cannes, you might have noticed that there’s not much to “get.” Or rather, there’s about as much to get in this film as there is to get in life. Ceylan’s story reflects the reality and the humanity in a gruesome situation better than most of his contemporaries and many of his assumed influences.
The plot of ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is decidedly straight-forward. A detective, a prosecutor, and a doctor investigate the location of a body after a man confesses to a murder he committed with his mentally challenged brother. Unfortunately, the crime was committed while he was intoxicated—and it was dark out—so he can’t quite remember where he disposed of the body. The men, along with a few police officers, drivers, soldiers, and gravediggers spend the night searching through barren, moribund fields on the outskirts of Turkey for the corpse.
Ceylan weaves the story in a way not unlike what one might expect from this genre. It’s not the surface of this story that is so remarkable, but the invisible layers that are scratched at in its development. A crime happens for a reason, be it premeditated and directed, or as an act of momentary, haphazard, and thus random violent aggression. Ceylan is less concerned about life before the killing and doesn’t focus extensively on how life might continue after the investigation; it’s the middle ground, the present, which drives the story and its characters forward.
In most police procedures, the detectives are personified as being “larger-than-life” heroes and command the screen whenever they appear. Here they are smaller, even blending into the background in certain scenes. They are the exact same size as everyone else—doctor, prosecutor, victim, killer. This has a great deal to do with Ceylan’s experimentation with the concept of focus. For example, the opening wide-angle shot toggles its focus between the outside of some sort of dilapidated store and the inside of it, where three men are mysteriously discussing something as a dog barks on. Similarly, the focus of the entire story often shifts between discovering where the body is hidden and the moral and emotional implications of what will happen when it is actually discovered. While watching the investigation unravel, it’s not always clear how each character will react and what their next movie will be.
The film plays out like a slice of cinematic philosophy almost from the start. An early scene observes the doctor staring into a starry sky, asking when and where his long night will end. The other characters also internalize the search for the body; Arab, one of the policemen, relates the never-ending search to his fear that he won’t be able to fill a prescription for his son before he gets home; the prosecutor remarks to the doctor that pinpointing the motive murders throughout his career is like trying to divine astrology. There’s no concrete way of doing it, and so you just have to trust yourself that you’ll be able to move forward once whatever is done has been done. A character even wonders that when this is all done and over with, if they’ll be able to tell the story like a fairy-tale, which is where the title of the film stems from.
Just as with any dark situation in life, there are sprinklings of humor scattered throughout the film. My favorite is toward the end—the body has been discovered and the doctor is giving his autopsy report before closing the investigation. What was once a muted, reflective man becomes an actor of the Old Hollywood variety, something that is not lost on his colleagues, as they refer to him as Clark Gable. It’s a nice moment of lightness (one of a few) that grounds the film in its own type of mystical reality.
As I embarrassingly reflect on my hopeful anticipation of viewing something “exotic” while watching this film (there is no part of this film based in any realm of exoticism), I do find it interesting to note that the cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, does something unlike anything I’ve seen before. The vastness of the Turkish landscapes, the quiet and melancholic deserts and empty fields that the cast of characters continuously searches through, and the violently dark and moody color palette all toy with my preconceived notions of Turkey, specifically in the context of it as a political nation. As any successful director and cinematographer duo should accomplish, this allows atmosphere to connect with the story in an extremely despondent and engaging way. The vastness of the environment relates to the distance the characters feel to where they are in life and where they hope to be. Likewise, the framing of a police procedural leads the characters to ruminate on what exactly it is they’re each doing in their lives (or not doing.)
Toward the end of the film, after the body has been found hog-tied and lying face down in an empty field of dirt, a police officer exclaims that the suspects “shouldn’t be treated like humans!” But, fortunately, that’s exactly what the director does. The result is an immensely moving viewing experience.