'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' -- Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which recently opened at New York City’s Film Forum, is an effective police procedural that examines the lengthy process of finding the bad guys, believing in the good guys and turning our expectations completely on their head. The Turkish-language film, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is an expert character study of a group of men with differing opinions of justice and judgment.
In today’s age of Criminal Minds, Law & Order, CSI and their various offshoots, it’s hard to believe that an original police procedural is still possible. Too often the sub-genre has been regimented and standardized into cliche plot occurrences: the dead body on the pavement, the skeptical police investigator, the line of crime scene tape, maybe a pesky journalist asking a few heated questions. We’ve seen it all time and time again, and, for the most part, the term “police procedural” is a death knell, a stamp of rigid formality.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is anything but typical. As it follows the travails of a police commissioner, prosecutor, doctor and murder suspect through one night and early morning, all aspects of true police work are on display. There are lengthy conversations about important and not-so-important topics. The characters laugh and cry, always cognizant of the fact that they have been tasked with a difficult job that routinely deals in death and despair. These guys don’t discover a corpse with resignation. They are affected by their findings; they sometimes cannot control their emotions. This is not cinematic bloodshed; it’s real and it hurts.
Because the movie focuses on a crime from a much more realistic perspective, there are also times when the proceedings grow dull. However, it oddly all fits together. These characters have been toiling away for years at their job; occasionally, they are victims of boredom. At 157 minutes, Ceylan’s film includes the full gamut of lows and highs of a police case.
Firat Tanisu in 'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' -- Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild
The central plot of the story — and the particulars of the crime — are immaterial. Not much is learned throughout the entire movie. We know that the police officials are transporting a criminal around the rolling hills of Anatolia in search of a buried body. The suspect was drunk when the murder took place and can’t remember exactly where he did his nasty deed. This leads the police on a wild goose chase not to stop any future crime from occurring, but simply to put an exclamation point on a murder that has already taken place. This gives the entire story an “aftermath” feel, as if the prosecutor and company are already conceding that they are too late.
With a light story that meanders to an end, the characters need to be engaging to hold our interest. Thankfully, the characters are interesting, and the assembled actors are top quality. Muhammet Uzuner as Doctor Cemal, Yilmaz Erdogan as Commisar Naci, Taner Birsel as Prosecutor Nusret and Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan as the driver Arab Ali are all distinct, yet seem cut from the same thread. In their conversations, they reveal a great deal about their past sins and their present predicaments. The prosecutor and doctor, in particular, become our two focal points. The man of medicine is a studious, contemplative person, while the man of law can’t help having feelings of anguish over the loss of a loved one. Together, the men weave their way through therapeutic back-and-froths that advance their characters and seem to heal some wounds.
The most memorable aspect of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is Ceylan’s direction and Gokhan Tiryaki’s exquisite photography. The shadows and lighting over the hilly landscapes all come to life, creating pastoral images that seem painted on a canvas. The countryside of Turkey has never looked more desperate or forlorn — two qualities that seem fitting for the men who populate its folds.