If the word masterpiece has any use these days, it must apply to the film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a mature, philosophically resonant work from Turkey’s leading director, 53-year-old Nuri Bilge Ceylan ( Climates, Distance, Three Monkeys).
First, though, a consumer caveat: Anatolia is long (157 minutes), slow, and a lot of it takes place in the dark.
Approach it with an open and well-rested mind, though, and the film. which won the directing prize at Cannes last May, is exceptional – a gorgeously shot crime story with emotionally layered characters and an indelible atmosphere of unease.
The plot is a forensic procedural that takes place over a 12-hour period, about half of which occurs between dusk and dawn during a long night drive through the desolately beautiful rolling hills of the Anatolian steppes in eastern Turkey.
Three vehicles carry a group of exhausted and frustrated men, including a young doctor, a public prosecutor, a police chief, cops, soldiers and two confessed murderers. The problem is that the killers were too drunk to recall where they buried the victim’s body.
As they meander about, occasionally getting lost or stopping to urinate, they talk: The police chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) threatens one of the scruffy prisoners Kenan (Firat Tanis) and condescends to his down-to-earth Arab driver (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) called, simply, Arab. He’s the one who gives the film its title, when he wisecracks to the doctor that, though the night is boring, he’ll have a good story to tell. “You can call it Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.…”
The two most educated men in the group, the prosecutor, Nusret (Taner Birsel) and the melancholic younger doctor, Cernal (Muhammet Uzuner) bond. The prosecutor tells him about a baffling case of an apparently healthy young woman who correctly predicted the day of her death. The answer to the puzzle isn’t given until near the film’s conclusion.
As the dark reaches its deepest, there’s a quiet interlude. The men go to a nearby village with no electricity to get something to eat, and the mayor (co-writer Ercan Kesal) prepares tea and food. He wants to know if strings can be pulled to help his village build what it needs most – a morgue so that exiled young people will have a chance to visit their dead parents before they’re interred. As the dinner ends, the men are struck silent by the beauty of the mayor’s daughter, who silently serves them tea, her face illumined by lantern light.
We emerge into morning light when the body is discovered, but the circumstances are more grim, and more complicated, than the police had guessed. They retire to the town to perform an autopsy. The victim’s wife and son show up. And as in any good police procedural there are revelations, both about the crime and the different men’s failures in their relationships and fears for their children. But there are also moments of humour and generosity, including the doctor’s decision not to report a discovery made during the autopsy.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who wrote the screenplay along with his wife, Ebru Ceylan and the actor Kesal, has another essential collaborator: his regular cinematographer, Gohkan Tiryaki, who brilliantly uses light as a storytelling tool.
From the car beams and lanterns of the night to the clinical glare of the autopsy room, the bare facts of the case emerge from the shadows, and the essential mystery deepens: How little we know of the inner lives of those around us.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
- Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
- Written by Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan
- Starring Muhammet Uzuner and Taner Birsel
- Classification: 14A
- 4 stars