Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

by Kevin Langson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 10, 2012
A scene from "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia"
A scene from "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia"  

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's work is largely responsible for bringing Turkish cinema to the attention of international festivalgoers over the last decade or so. His films are reliably patient, meticulous, and exquisitely photographed. Generally not eventful or plot-driven enough to be mainstream, his last film, "Three Monkeys" was a bit more accessible. With his latest, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, the art is again about mood and environment more than events. That's not to say that there isn't an interesting story being told, just that Ceylan takes his time unraveling and demonstrates a confidence in the impact of ordinary events. He lingers where other directors would incisively cut to the next action.

As the title suggests, this film is a return to a remote region of Turkey (as is the trend with major Turkish directors), where electricity comes and goes and where small town mayors fight to get funding for simple things to better the lives of their citizens - far from Istanbul and Ankara. The post-opening titles first shot positions the group of cars we will follow in the hilly landscape with which they are struggling. Headlights cut through the darkness as they traverse a desolate landscape. This shot not only introduces the primary pursuit of the story but also initiates a series of painterly night landscapes. Ceylan's exteriors are impeccably captured and are likely to reverberate well after the cut.

This is a police procedural that follows a group effort - including local police, prosecutor, doctor, and murder suspect - to locate the location of a crime. The sinister-faced Kenan, with a gash across his nose, is in custody of the police and is expected to lead them to the exact site where he killed another man, Yasar. This proves no easy task, either because of the difficulty of the steppes or the deceitfulness of the suspect- probably a combination of the two. Kenan mentions a certain tree, a lay of the land; but it's ambiguous and the professionals become a bit weary as the hunt extends well into the night.

A scene from "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia"  

In a Hollywood film, conflicting personalities would likely give rise to fisticuffs or the firing of demeaning quips. Here, there is a more subtle interplay between different types. There is the urbane, self-satisfied prosecutor (Mr. Nusret but referred to respectfully as ’Prosecutor’ throughout); the fiery, impatient local cop, Naci; a dimwitted military man whose focus on technicalities such as municipal boundaries earns the disdain of the prosecutor; the taciturn and confident doctor, Dr. Cemal, and the rough-talking driver, Arab, who at one point goes off about the pleasures of shooting a rifle out here in the hills to let off steam.

When Naci takes to beating Kenan out of frustration and because "it’s the only language he understands," the prosecutor has to be the rational-minded one who intervenes. Both authority men have personal issues that come to light over the course of the story. Though there are moments that these private traumas feel a bit contrived to make the story fuller, the characters generally feel genuine. Naci has been pushed to his limits with his job- he declares that the men he encounters often could be mistaken for beasts and unleashes his fury at inhumanity on Kenan - but he also needs to escape into his job because his home life is dense with despair, as his son is sick. There are a few instances in which Naci’s behavior doesn’t ring true but when considered retrospectively, in light of the stress of parenting and policing he faces, his infantile responses mostly become comprehensible.

The prosecutor’s private sadness comes to light through a recurring disagreement he has with the doctor - a seeming allegory for the undying tension between spirituality and superstition on the one hand and empirical science on the other. The prosecutor shares a narrative in which he insists a pregnant woman predicted the exact time of her own death - in the moments following the birth of her child. The doctor good-naturedly refutes that one could simply die, with no medical explanation. He speculates she could have been on a drug that induced a heart attack and feels strongly that an autopsy should have been done. The prosecutor, in turn, argues that the family rightfully didn’t see the need to slice up a beautiful body. Of course, there is no resolution, as both sides are obstinate; the difference, it becomes clear, is that the prosecutor is emotionally invested in the argument.

An autopsy, however, is performed on Yasar, with the doctor narrating his findings bit by bit to a typist of questionable competency in a modest, concrete hospital. This sequence, as in an earlier one in which the crew stays overnight with a small town mayor with a beautiful daughter who stuns the men while serving them tea, is an extended one that observes the mundane (but not boring) rituals of rural life. The scenes are enriched by subtle humor and subtle tension, so that even when there are minor missteps in the script, the overriding sense is that this is an acute drama that observes how men navigate everyday challenges, especially as their personal lives intrude upon their professional life.

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia

Tensions rise as a group of Turkish officials and civilians conduct a nighttime search for a buried homicide victim.


Runtime :: 157 mins
Release Date :: Jan 04, 2012
Language :: Turkish
Country :: Turkey


Cemal :: Muhammet Uzuner
Naci :: Yilmaz Erdogan
Nusret :: Taner Birsel
Ali :: Ahmet Taylan
Kenan :: Firat Tanis
Mukhtar :: Ercan Kesal
Ramazan :: Burhan Yildiz


Director :: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Screenwriter :: Ercan Kesal
Screenwriter :: Ebru Ceylan
Screenwriter :: Nuri Bilge Ceylan


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