Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 Turkish drama Once Upon a Time in Anatolia seems like it was made for me. A glacially slow, wistfully poetic film about finding visual beauty in mundanity (or is it the other way around?) that primarily focuses on the formal elements of film, such as camerawork and editing, at the expense of a conventional narrative, it aims to fill big shoes set out by directors long-gone, but whose mark on the film world is undeniable: Tarkovsky and Antonioni to name the two most obvious. High praise, but if you’re expecting a “but” … you’d be wrong. Amazingly, Ceylan overcomes any burden placed on him through comparison to past master-directors here, not by creating something truly unique but by learning from the best (his Sight and Sound Magazine Top 10 films list plays like a who’s who of languid art-house auteurs) and essaying their strengths for a time period sorely lacking in such provocative, deeply felt filmmaking.

The plot is, naturally for this kind of mood-based film, simple. A group of men, including a Doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), a Prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a Commissar or police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), and a number of other authority figures ride out into the Anatolian Steppes in central Turkey with two murder suspects who only remember the general location of a body they buried. Some are given last names, but they largely refer to each other by their profession , and the film refuses to give them first names (I detect a little of the ol’ their-lives-are-being-defined-by-their-professions-and-they-are-all-distanced-from-each-other-and-lost-in-their-inhumanity). Essentially that’s it – not a lot for a 150 minute film. You’d be forgiven for going in, and even coming out, seeing only boredom and meandering. In a sense, that is exactly what Ceylan is going for, and he achieves it monumentally.

But first things first: good god this film is gorgeous. I mean spellbindingly, unspeakably gorgeous, particularly in the first half when the characters’ search takes them to the Anatolian steppes far away from civilization. They battle not only a loneliness and a boredom which favors any action on their part by default, including, as they learn, the giving of secrets, but the impenetrable night sky. The cinematography in the film is the most consistently awe-inspiring of any film I’ve seen in years, and yet it never insists upon itself. This is a film of long, drawn-out shots that last for minutes at a time, but the images don’t reek of masturbatory fluff. They speak for themselves. In particular, Ceylan’s luminous location-work is stunning, essaying a far-off, alien land, even to the men who live in the city nearby, and capturing the surreality of this journey of the mundane for the characters and for us. One shot later in the film as two cars drive away from the Anatolian Steppes had me dumbfounded about how it could not have been a moving painting

Elsewhere, Ceylan explores his characters as much through his framing as any dialogue. His famed technique of filming characters from behind as others stare at their backside, rendering them impenetrable and leaving us searching for the essence of who these people are, is on full display here. It does wonders for the film’s ultimate exploration of human loneliness and the increasingly dis-connected world we live in.  I haven’t seen any of the director’s other films, but research suggests he favors dehumanization in modern city life as his forte. If so, it’s telling that the first two-thirds of this film take place away from any semblance of city life, conveying that perhaps these city dwellers have internalized the loneliness and taken it with them. His far-off framing of scenes where humans become less full formed than monochromatic blips in the wide expanse of the land helps here as well, finding humans at their most insignificant and wringing splendor and sensitive allure out of melancholy.

If this weren’t enough, his shadow work is of the highest order as well, gushing outward through the cracks of the Turkish countryside and permeating out souls. A shot midway through the film where one car pulls up with a number of shadows standing in for the human form, only to have another car from behind pull up directly behind it, its headlights illuminating the shadows to a blinding crisp, may be one of the ten most striking images I have ever seen in a film. The effect is out of a horror movie, and unmistakable – it conveys these men as enigmas to us and each other, blinded and lost to the technology of light which mankind had once designed to illuminate them. They are stuck in the darkness either way.

One would be forgiven for thinking the whole film is a mere cornucopia of visual splendor –  for the first 90 minutes,  the characters wander around aimlessly in a visual and aural stew of Ceylan’s making and bask in their own loneliness. He’s making a mood piece and not a conventional narrative film – in a sense, it’s less about analyzing his form than giving yourself over to it. But this isn’t enough for Ceylan. He has more under his belt, namely a neo-realist examination of the human condition, specifically modern life and the distance gripping people who have become torn apart by day-to-day existence and see no way out but to lie to others and themselves. Early in the film the two most sympathetic characters are the Prosecutor and the Doctor, perhaps because they aren’t police officers in a conventional sense  and there’s a feeling that the other men have known each other for longer and are leaving these two out in the cold. But as the film goes along they become less like enigmas and more like people, and we begin to wonder if humanity treats any of them kindly.

Or, perhaps, the fact of their being enigmas and people is revealed to be one-in-the-same -people who are innately mysteries to us, to others, and to themselves because they are people, rather than in spite of it. The Prosecutor mulls over a past crime in his head and debates it with the Doctor, seemingly for sport, but with a heart-breakingly piercing reaction shot we see there’s something more personal in the conversation for him. The Doctor meanwhile ends the film on a decision of untold weight considering how much time has been spent searching for the dead body. His decision entails a lie and is painfully revealing about the nature of peoples’ dishonesty with their selves.

But Ceylan isn’t interested in judging his characters. He’s far too much of a humanist for that, albeit a profoundly clinical one. There’s a curious warmth to the film which emerges somewhere between the clearly cold, embittered wasteland of Anatolia where secrets go to be hidden and revealed and the starker but somehow more confusing realities of the city life these guys are used to. Ceylan is interested in exploring these people’s lives as they exist in relation to each other, which is why he frequently has characters look directly at the camera as it is positioned where another person would be, serving the place of the person the character gazes on at. His camera moves from gliding over them into piercing their souls as they stare on at it, or it stares back at them, but it never truly judges and only infrequently mocks them.

Even if it doesn’t mock, the film does boast an unmistakable undercurrent of dark humor in the mundanity of these guys’ lives. The film, if image-focused, is also replete with dialogue; these men talk if only because they search for some kind of belonging or community, but naturally, their attempts struggle and often fall on deaf ears. While the characters are introduced on the trail of a dead body, and we would like to assume their serious demeanor and their care for the details of the job, the first introduction to the characters knowingly aims for boredom to subvert our conception of “exciting” detective and mystery films. When we meet them they spend several minutes speaking not about their quest but about what amounts to kebabs, yoghurt, cheese, and desserts to pass the time. The conversation is presented largely in an unbroken take, its unbrokenness conveying a laborious length of time and its seemingly unending dryness. In fact, that’s part of the point, as Ceylan finds humor in the way these characters work off of each other in the most mundane, distant ways possible. We come to understand after-all that this is a job for them, suffused with the day-to-day doldrums of any job for any person –  it just happens to center death. And these people will try, as anyone might, to come to terms with their job, to survive it, by attempting to bond over the little things in life that remind them of a world past their mundane, inhuman work. If this includes yoghurt, so be it.

The funniest scene, ironically, is probably the one where they do finally find the body and the whole crew rather clinically argues about what to do with it to get it home, after of course they make superficial jokes about Clark Gable and other subjects instead of actually coming to terms with the body the film has rather painstakingly spent the better part of 90 minutes having them search for. They are so wrapped up in the droll boredom of life they can’t really react emotionally to the body; their careers, and their very existence as modern city folk, is predicated on their not having an emotional connection. It saps them of any energy or humanity. It kills them. It also happens to be the only way they can survive a life set to strangle them.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia made a huge international splash when it came in second at the Cannes Film Festival – perfectly fitting considering the festival’s proclivity for slow-moving humanism and detailed, idea-based formless cosmology (Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life won the previous year). For all Cannes’ occasional propensities for the pretentious,  Ceylan’s film does the festival proud. This is no mere mood piece (although it is that and inescapably moving as one). It is also a heart-rending examination of human frailty and an expanse of loss and the everyday loneliness and shared ways in which we can’t but cope with life through distance and lies. Above all, it’s a profoundly human film of shared, collective melancholy, a sweeping philosophical ode to humankind that finds toil and trouble in Ceylan’s darling visual splendor. Now if I can just get around to seeing his 2014 film Winter Light, which one-upped its predecessor and finally gave the director a first place trophy at Cannes…

Score: Yeah it’s a 10/10

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