Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is the latest (and arguably greatest) in a streak of films that has seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan honored at Cannes for almost a decade now. Following the precedent that Turkey’s best director has set for himself, Anatolia is gloriously inaccessible, consisting of over two and a half hours of murder investigations and bureaucratic procedures. Over the course of the long running time, we get to know, most notably, a doctor and a prosecutor, and also soldiers and police officers, a transcriber, and a pair of suspects, all of whom search endlessly for a body along the gorgeously photographed but barren and monotonous Anatolia. They have the confession, but the body was buried somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but the suspect was a bit too drunk to be able to recall, so we follow an increasingly frustrated crew look upon hill after hill, tree after tree, spring after spring for the burial spot.
If the running time didn’t tell you, they don’t find it for quite a long time. And let us thank Ceylan now for that, because an extensive investigation—taking place almost entirely in the dark—allows for an influx of beautiful landscapes and natural symbolism as the investigators search for answers within the beams of headlights against a landscape that Ceylan shows us is much bigger than they could possibly cover. The cinematography works on multiple levels: Showcasing Turkey’s natural land, emphasizing multiple planes of actions to keep viewers alert, and hinting at the thematic undertones to come; indeed, we rarely are given close-ups, allowing for good use of deep-field space but also a cool understanding of how little the investigation itself might really matter. Instead, we listen to the characters talk about their lives outside the movies, which includes sick children at home, implied marital separations, and friends to see—Ceylan suggests off-screen worlds and lives better than any director since Krzysztof Kieślowski—and try to figure out what they are doing out there in the first place.
But Antaolia is not so much existential as much as it is human, the larger themes packaged within a more manageable search for knowledge. From the revelatory headlights to a parable regarding a woman who predicts the date of her death precisely, the film is, above all, a search for truth and knowledge. Why things happen the way they do, which decisions are “right” or “wrong,” what needs to be done to make something “better.” All these and more arise as we learn, little by little, about a character’s life outside of work, as they trade stories and disclose habits. It is from these questions that the larger ones arise, done so visually much more than with dialogue. Anatolia is about how one night like any other—at least one character says he has done this before—can lead a man to think about his life quite differently.
When the sun comes up, we learn several important facts: About the dead man, about the suspects, about the woman who predicted her own death, but most of the beauty and much of the symbolism disappear, and there is far too much emphasis on how unhelpful bureaucracy can be as every detail is painstakingly recorded down to the letter. The intrigue and mystery are gone. Characters are far too determined, and there are too many answers for a movie that makes big goals out of small questions. Still, the ending hits hard. The audience has a couple pieces of information that no character does, and as a result we are questioning good and evil and right and wrong even more so than the doctor, who is faced with a moral dilemma that has been in the making since we first met him. All we can do with the extra information, though, is realize that more knowledge does not necessarily equate to a clearer truth.
Ceylan treats his audiences and his characters like humans, and he never promises to be anything more, himself. The only hint he gives us is in the form of a woman who walks in on a dinner, her face almost posed in the light of a lantern. Does this mean to the audience what it might mean to the characters? There are enough of Chekhov’s guns in this film to suggest that this might be another, albeit subtle one. But then, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is never explicit. The result is a compelling study of humanity and truth that leaves you with what you take from it, rarely refusing to cover a base and always rising to the next challenge, so long as the audience will stay for the ride.15 March, 2012 - 01:54 — Forrest Cardamenis