An epic take on a small, human tragedy, Once Upon a Time In Anatolia continues Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ascent to the upper echelons of European cinema. Shooting like Lean whilst keeping an eye on the minutae of characters like Tarkovsky will do that. Ceylan takes twelve men out onto the steppes in search of a body. Police Cheif, Prosecutor, a doctor, the suspects who buried the body and various policemen, drivers and members of the gendarmerie all drive out in three cars at dusk, hoping to wrap up a crime that seems to be an open and shut case.
This is complex, rich, layered storytelling. Exposition is subtle or non existant. Characteristics, pasts, needs and wants are revealed through minute conversational clues, reactions to the situations, the way they respond to a beautiful woman and seemingly a hundred other ways. What starts out as a group of Turkish guys looking for a body (Stand by Me, Ha), becomes, over 2 hours, the packed, infinite narrative of a dozen or so loosely bound men.
The Anatolian Steppes are brought alive and given a supernatural, almost ethereal feel. As night falls a storm always seems near, the air crackles with electricity, rain spatters and threatens, lightning cracks and dogs bark (one dog in particular is almost certainly meant to evoke the black hound in Tarkovsky’s Stalker). The men are buffeted and uneasy, both with the unpleasantness of their task and the unpredictability of their surroundings.
The mission continues through the night with the suspect, Kenan, unable or unwilling to reveal the corpses location. As the weather worsens, the Prosecutor, nominally in charge, calls for a break. After an amusing argument, the village of the driver, Arab Ali, is chosen as it is near by. The mayor is woken and food prepared. These are perhaps Anatolia’s warmest scenes. The men sit down and eat, laughing and joking, mostly at Arab Ali’s expense. Things turn more serious as the mayor explains the plight of a village where “all the young are gone” and wild animals desecrate corpses in the cemetary as there is no money to fix the wall, as if on cue the power fails in the wind. The mayor calls for his daughter to bring lamps. She comes, with light and glasses of hot coffee and makes her way slowly round the room. The shadows flicker, the men nod their thanks and all is silent. It’s quietly bravura filmmaking that stuns in it’s audacity whilst being totally immersive (EBFS is fairly sure we enjoyed a coffee in that room).
Tying together the different sections of the film with conversations that span them, particularly between the doctor and the prosecutor (the intelligentsia of the piece) is a neat narrative trick that holds Anatolia together at it’s heart. allowing the many other disparate elements, conversation and ideas to never get too far from the central themes of loss and guilt.
Light is used almost as a character. First as safety from the darkness with the headlamps and the oil burners, then danger as lightning flashes overhead and finally an enemy as the cold light of day fills the men with a sour pall that continues until the credits.
An extended (really extanded) coda in the town hospital before and during the autopsy of the recovered body seems indulgent but then we are hit quickly (relatively) with two revalations, not twists, of such a magnitude that coupled with the time invested and the effort required are both shocking and at the same time, richly rewarding. A careful use of the word “triumph” is probably called for.