Once Upon a Time In AnatoliaNYT Critics' Pick
One Search for a Body, Another for Meaning
Published: January 3, 2012
A metaphysical road movie about life, death and the limits of knowledge, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” has arrived just in time to cure the adult filmgoer blues. It was directed by the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose earlier movies include “Distant”and “Three Monkeys” and who in recent years has emerged as one of the consistently most exciting directors on the international scene. His latest, which shared the grand prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, takes the unassuming form of a police investigation that, as miles and words mount, evolves into a plangent, visually stunning meditation on what it is to be human.
The story is direct, if the journey less so. A man has been murdered, and a small battalion — a doctor, a prosecutor, a few policemen, several soldiers, diggers with shovels and a transcriber with a laptop — has invaded the countryside with the suspect to dig up the body. The trouble is that the accused, Kenan (Firat Tanis), claims to have been drunk when he committed the murder and can’t remember where he buried the body. And so off the men go in two cars and a Jeep, driving up and down the sensuous, rolling hills of Anatolia, the enormous peninsula that constitutes most of Turkey and which the ancient Greeks called the land of the rising sun.
The sun has nearly set when the men first appear en masse, pulling into a turn in the dirt road where a solitary young tree pierces the parched amber landscape like a shot arrow. Making the most of his wide-screen frame — a format made for landscapes like these and filmmakers as sensitive as this one — Mr. Ceylan initially keeps his distance from the characters by showing them in extreme long shot, a vantage that accentuates how small they are in relation to the wide world enveloping them. This is the first in a series of stops that the men will make as, again and again, they look for the body in a search that reveals far more about the living than about the dead.
Mr. Ceylan soon cuts in for a closer look as he turns his brilliant eye for landscape to the gaunt and rounded, pitted and smoothed faces of his travelers. Much like the stopovers during the search when the men clamber out of their vehicles, these faces — including those of the doctor, Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), and the prosecutor, Nusret (Taner Birsel) — are effectively narrative layovers, breaks in the larger journey. There’s a murder at the story’s center, but as one after another face fills the frame, a tear violently trembling in one man’s eye while the memory of a dead wife hovers in another man’s look, it becomes evident that the greater mystery here is of existence itself.
The title of “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” suggests the work of Sergio Leone, including most obviously Leone’s 1968 masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in the West.” I don’t want to make strong claims about the influence of that or any other Leone film on “Anatolia,” though the twinned landscapes of this movie’s natural vistas and the ugly beauty of its fantastic faces evoke Leone. (More than a few of Mr. Ceylan’s actors could outgargoyle Leone performers like Jack Elam.) Yet, like most westerns, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” is, among other things, an examination of violence and masculinity, one in which women remain critical if largely off-screen figures, silent if never truly mute.
Mr. Ceylan doesn’t trumpet his ideas, but lets them quietly surface, often through the stories that the men tell one another and that at times take the form of parables. In one, a driver, Arab Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan), tells the doctor how he likes to drive to the countryside for target practice, just to let off some steam. Enveloped in darkness, the wind rising like sighs, Arab Ali at first registers as a somewhat buffoonish, borderline-dangerous character whose Hobbesian worldview (it’s shoot or be shot) is a reminder that this is, after all, a search for a murdered man. Yet, like the doctor, the prosecutor and the police chief, Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), Arab Ali proves more complex than he seems because his words are those of a man puzzling through the meaning of life.
Words can fail the men, whose stories of lost wives and other ghosts drench the movie in an acute sense of loss, one that is offset by the effulgence of the natural world, a gift that none seem to see. The dead haunt “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” but so does beauty. At one point, after several futile attempts to find the body, the men drive to a village. There they are greeted by its leader, or mukhtar (Ercan Kesal), who, amid a hospitable meal, tells the travelers that the town needs a new morgue. Most of the young people have left, he says, and when an old villager dies, they beg to see the dead one last time, holding onto a past that fills them with longing. And then the mukhtar’s beautiful daughter joins the men, her face bathed in a light that until then has eluded them.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan; written by Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan; director of photography, Gokhan Tiryaki; edited by Bora Goksingol and Nuri Bilge Ceylan; art direction by Dilek Yapkuoz Ayaztuna; produced by Zeynep Ozbatur Atakan; released by the Cinema Guild. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In Turkish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 37 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Muhammet Uzuner (Doctor Cemal), Yilmaz Erdogan (Commissar Naci), Taner Birsel (Prosecutor Nusret), Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan (Driver Arab Ali), Firat Tanis (Suspect Kenan) and Ercan Kesal (Mukhtar)