ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is, first and foremost, a masterpiece, a stunningly composed piece of cinema that stands out in an incredibly strong slate of LFF films as a genuine and singular work of art. As a piece of entertainment, it’s harder to recommend, but it’s nevertheless a towering and intriguing work.
After a short prologue we find ourselves out in the highlands of Anatolia in the middle of a murder investigation. A man and his accomplice have admitted to the crime, and have led a posse of investigators, including a quiet, contemplative doctor, an officious prosecutor, and the belligerent chief of police, out into the wilderness to where the body is buried. The film plays out almost in real time as we stay with the men throughout the night and into the early morning, as the investigation is methodically drawn to a close. In the process we see as the characters undergo personal revelations and philosophical revolutions in a long, dark night of the soul
The prefix “Once upon a time…” suggests an epic, violent drama in the vein of Leone’s films of the same name, but in reality ANATOLIA provides nothing of the sort. There are nods to Westerns (there are moments reminiscent of the more elegiac moments in THE WILD BUNCH, of all films), and some of the static, widescreen photography is easily the equal of anything Leone came up with. But there is very little violence or machismo on display, and revenge, justice and redemption are unlikely prospects for all involved.
So what kind of film exactly is ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA? On the surface of it, it’s one of the most thorough police procedurals ever made, and probably one of most realistic. We see every dead end, every uncomfortable car journey, and every police report dictated and replicated in intricate detail. Paradoxically however, the more detailed the film’s portrayal of police work becomes, the less concerned it seems with the murder investigation itself.
It turns into more of an exercise in scenic existentialism (bear with me), a picturesque journey in the vein of the Heart of Darkness –inspired APOCALYPSE NOW and AGUIRRE THE WRATH OF GOD. All of these films feature protagonists who are ostensibly searching for one thing (an AWOL soldier, El Dorado, or, in the case of ANATOLIA, a body) but in reality are looking for something inherently spiritual, an answer to make sense of the worlds of uncertainty and chaos they find themselves in – in ANATOLIA, everybody is looking for a logical solution, but at every turn are reminded that life rarely provides any absolute conclusions.
In this respect the film’s icy sense of dread and nihilistic representation of death, crime and justice is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s work and particularly the Coens’ adaptation of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. These are men who confront evil and sin not with emotional grandstanding or violent action but with a sense of inevitability and weary befuddlement. If this sounds unwatchably depressing, it’s worth noting that there’s also a noticeable streak of Coen-esque black humour running throughout that is actually funny, particularly once the body is discovered and the men realise no one has prepared to transport it.
Perhaps the main talking point of ANATOLIA will be its exquisite photography – director Nuri Bilge Ceylan began his career as photographer, and his eye for composition and use of light (with cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki) creates a succession of achingly beautiful moments: under a red, black and orange sky, we see brilliant flashes of an alien, unusual light that slowly reveals itself to be car headlamps; as one character delivers a monologue, the camera follows an apple as it falls from a tree, rolls down a hill and down the length of a nearby stream; and, in one of the most memorable scenes of the year, the men are stunned into silence by the beauty of a farmer’s daughter when she serves them tea, as they take turns being bathed in the almost celestial light emanating from the lamp she carries on her tea tray. It’s jaw-dropping stuff.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is 157 minutes long and, to be honest, feels longer. This is not necessarily a slight, but it’s important to note that this is a film that demands your attention throughout its running time – your brain needs to be switched on and utterly focused if you’re to get the most out of it, as it is uncompromising in its refusal to adhere to a traditional narrative structure. The upside is that it’s one of the few movies I’ve seen recently that can be called ‘poetic’ without pretension or hyperbole, but the flip side is that it you must be prepared to adhere to its rhythms and withstand its pacing, which at times is borderline glacial.
However, while the tone is generally sombre, this is not a dry and portentous film – the characters are sympathetic and recognisably human, and are even good for some genuine laughs in places. It’s a film that people will be picking over for years, and once you get past the stately pace and the running time, the rewards to be found in ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA are huge. This is incredible cinema.