'In Anatolia,' A Murder And A Meditation Or Three
Once Upon A Time
- Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 150 minutes
With: Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Muhammet Uzuner, Firat Tanis, Burhan Yildiz
In Turkish with subtitles
Once upon a time, long ago, I asked the late, great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski why his Three Colors triptych was so operatic. He thought about this for a minute. "My dear," he said dryly, "life is boring," and then he tucked into his lunch.
I've thought of that exchange often when pondering the cosmos and paying the gas bill, but never more so than while watching Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a ravishingly atmospheric new Turkish film about the entanglement of life's big-ticket dramas with the red tape that comes with getting through the day.
At least I think that's what it's about. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who made the equally opaque and nourishing Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008), isn't a man to put his thematic cards on the table. In Anatolia, the mundane, the profound and the ineffable mingle freely within the frame of a policier that's stacked to the gills with seemingly irrelevant process.
The movie, which won the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival, opens on a huddle of rough-looking men seen through a fogged-up window, laughing, talking and drinking. We can't hear what they're saying, and there's no score to key the mood. Which leaves us free to attend to the ambient noise — a dog barking, a roll of thunder, the rustle of wind through leaves — a Bressonian soundscape that strands us between the longing to enter this world and a terror of being eaten alive by it. There's a whoosh of brakes; a truck draws up; the men go to meet it. Next thing we know, there's a corpse to be dug up.
Or so we're told — because much of the next 140 minutes is taken up with the chitchat of several officials and one haunted-looking suspect, driving around the barren steppes of rural Anatolia in search of the body. And every minute is well worth your trouble, especially if you share the men's yearning to make meaning out of the big old mess of life.
Turn the movie this way, and it's a police procedural that's tragicomically heavy on minutiae while slyly suggesting that official evidence always lies. Turn it that way, and it's an existential fairy tale set in a nocturnal netherworld, a landscape lit in a thrilling chrome yellow and filled with unreliable narrators, signs and portents, secrets and lies — not to mention a couple of gorgeous mystery women to serve as vessels of desire and paranoia.
The immediate problem is that the body can't be found: Every hillside looks the same, and the suspect claims he was drunk when it was buried. Beyond that, he retreats into a silence that may be cowed or defiant, who can tell? His interlocutors — a garrulous local police commissioner, his Arab driver, and a suave, world-weary prosecutor — more than make up for the man's silence with seemingly peripheral talk about their health, their marriages, the disenfranchisement of the country as compared with the city, even Turkey's chances of being accepted into the European Union.
Much of this is mordantly funny, though there's an edge of panicky farce, and gradually the willfully digressive detail piles up into a pervasive unease whose source you can't quite put your finger on.
A handsome young doctor looks on, his quiet impassivity touched with skepticism and flashes of anguish. The seemingly unflappable prosecutor tells him of a woman he knows who predicted her own death from a heart attack. Medically impossible, the doctor assures him — suggesting, with less irony than you might imagine, that the prosecutor retell this incomprehensible event as a fairy tale.
By the time the men stop for a meal in the village that's home to the suspect and the dead man, just about everyone is starting to unravel. Let's just say that neither the presence of the village elder's beautiful daughter nor the hair-raisingly rocky performance of an autopsy help to calm the waters.
Before the lights go up there will have been a formal confession of sorts, plus several others wedged into the busy ancillary activity. There will be moments of goofy kindness, and in the doctor's mournful gaze after the shapely figure of a woman, a hint at another confession that may never be made. In this, as in all of Ceylan's films, it's the distractions and elisions, not the official stories, that carry the existential weight of the days of our lives. (Recommended)