' ' Cinema Romantico: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Monday, September 17, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

-“Looks like you started smoking again. You were doing so well. What happened all of a sudden?” 
-“It wasn’t all of a sudden, doctor.” 

Nothing is all of a sudden in “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Grand Jury Prize winner at vaunted Cannes. After a brief prologue that betrays nothing, the film shifts to a long, winding road in the moonlit Turkish countryside. Three cars are glimpsed on the horizon, come into view, travel a little ways, and stop. A gaggle of men climb out. They are police, but there is also a doctor, a lawyer, and two men in handcuffs. These two men have confessed to a murder. They have agreed to lead the police and the doctor and the lawyer to the place where the body is buried. Except they are having some trouble remembering precisely where the body is buried. Everything looks the same out here in rural Anatolia. So they pile back into the cars and move on to a different spot. The body is not there. So they pile back into the cars and move on to another different spot. The body is not there.

Once upon a time is a phrase we so often think of in conjunction with fairy-tales – you know, fantasy, make-believe, castles perched on floating clouds, etc. Cineastes might think of Sergio Leone’s 1969 “Once Upon A Time In The West”, a ginormous masterpiece in which every happening, every line, every gesture is outsized and romanticized. And although it has the rich cinematography and the far-reaching running time (two hours and thirty-seven minutes), it could not be further from a spaghetti western. It reminded me of the lauded Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” not so much for the bleakness – though “Anatolia” can be bleak, but also quite funny in a decidedly droll way – but for the length and frankness of its scenes.

For all these outdoor vistas, time and again Ceylan's camera chooses to settle for focusing on faces. In the earliest moments the camera squares in on the face of the main murderer and then moves in on it, slowly, as it is the guilt coming home to roost. Back at the hospital the doctor, for a brief second, looks directly into the camera. The shot reverses and we realize he is looking into a mirror, but is he really? Or is he looking at us? Is he pleading? "What do you think of all this?" Later, the camera chooses to focus on the doctor's face again even as an autopsy goes on just out of its frame, the gut-punching sounds of the operation ever-present in our ear.

It may have taken me up until this moment, basically the film's final moment, to determine what it was up to all along. "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" is so quiet and contemplative it does not even possess a hint of music and while that might sound as if it makes for a slog, it does not. Rather it envelopes you in its atmosphere, an atmosphere purposely at odds with the "Once Upon A Time" of its title.

I'm an American. Americans are infiltrated with police procedural shows on a nightly basis (a daily basis, too, counting re-runs). The body is found before the opening credits. The autopsy is performed with no real regard for the fact that, uh, that's, like, a person whose life just ended on your table. Cops go after Killers. Guns are fired. Cops get Killers. Everyone's happy. It is afforded no reverence for the fact that every human life taken - no matter who, no matter how - is a very big deal.

"Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" takes 237 minutes to pay it proper reverence. In the end, that is awfully epic indeed.


Chris said...

Saw this film recently too. Interesting what you say about the faces and mirror. Also have to wonder why they forgot the body bag and are working at night? Perhaps could be interpreted as a satire of incompetent Turkish police (I don't have anything against Turks, by the way)

Here's my full review:

Nick Prigge said...

I thought the body bag and the way they tied up the body and the fact the cops had to tie up the body the same way and so on and so forth, I thought it was all a very much a comedy of errors. Just added to the atmosphere.

Cleo Rogers said...

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).

Cleo Rogers (Janitorial Services)