An epic night-time police investigation, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia exhumes an inconvenient truth from the soul’s darkest recesses.
Lights In The Dusk by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
One of the greatest pleasures of cinema is finding a 24-frames-per-second order in the chaos that surrounds us, hewn from the shamanistic vision of a director. And no-one reveals chaos better than Nuri Bilge Ceylan, slowly unshrouding his narrative threads from the dense murk of images. It’s in such a vein that Once Upon A Time In Anatolia opens, on a steamed-up window pane, our eyes not yet accustomed to seeing through to the action. And it’s a device he repeats, this time with the plot rather than the camera, as the prologue of three friends drinking and talking in a mechanic’s workshop suddenly gives way to a seemingly unrelated and protracted criminal investigation in which the police, the self-confessed killer, and a forensic medical examiner attempt to locate and exhume a freshly murdered corpse.
There are many such abrupt disorientations in Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, such as the doctor’s gaze over an empty surgery, which suddenly becomes populated with the apparition of the court prosecutor. Or the temporal dislocation as Dr Celam and Arab the driver, sitting high over a fountain and a ploughed field, appear to be discussing past lives, when in fact it’s their disembodied voices from another moment which accompany their silent musing over the floodlit night. Nuri Bilge Ceylan even teaches us how to see, our visual adjustment from twittering birds to a fluttering awning beautifully guided by his focus-pulling hand. And yet, there’s still enough chaos in the Stygian gloom of Anatolia for our Dante to be glad of his Virgil.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is the story of a simple police procedural from the hidden burial of a murdered body to its autopsy, but treated with all the epic vistas, stunning widescreen cinematography and gun-toting of a Hollywood western. The geographical spaces of Anatolia are sparse and vast, but through the everyday conversations of the police, on yoghurt and prostate exams, Ceylan gives a local familiarity to this Turkish wild west – “Let it rain on Igdebeli.” Even if, to begin with the doctor is silent and passive – observing, thinking, remembering – it’s his journey, in the backseat of their nighttime odyssey. He’s not always at the centre, but his story slowly unfolds in told fragments and troubled looks, his existential moment of doubt revealed and somehow worthy of the momentous line, “Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul.”
Celam’s internal story crosses Muhammet Uzuner’s face like a lunar eclipse, but it isn’t always cloudfree; he feels empathy towards Kenan the gaunt killer, offering him a cigarette, and he ponders the nature of sin and guilt as a rolling apple lands in a stream and floats away. Perhaps most puzzling of all is his final gaze out of his office window, watching Kenan’s wife and son disappear into the distance. Maybe it’s a nostalgic memory of the divorced doctor’s own family left behind in the big smoke or a fleeting feeling of guilt. Like the rest of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia it’s hauntingly opaque, and yet still makes for hypnotic viewing. Gökhan Tiryaki’s jaw-dropping cinematography creates an oneiric vision, just like the grand appearance of the young girl Sinan, bringing tea and casting a spell over the resting men with her ethereal light. It’s a mesmerising dream and all eyes follow her, unable to wrest themselves from the great vision.
It’s no coincidence of course that Celam resembles Ceylan in name, the existential thinker. It may be Celam’s emotional journey, but it’s also Ceylan’s story, and the doctor’s look direct to camera seems to create a mirror either side of the lens; the director on one side, his character on the other. For Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is also an ode to filmmaking – the wearisome tribulations of moving from one location to another, work held up by a failing generator, and the mastery of the morgue a metaphor for the filmmaker’s artistry – unable to get started in the cutting room without a contract or funding.
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is certainly a complex film, but also mesmerising, thought-provoking and contemplative. It’s also funny, with its Clark Gable lookalike prosecutor and its corpulent corpse too big for the squad car boot. But it’s not always easy, its mirror turned on society, Turkey, the soul and filmmaking. Sometimes poking into gloomy corners, but with a light that shines brightly.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is released on 16th March in the UK