1:21 pm Jan. 4, 2012
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is an artist who purposely distances his viewers from his characters. This takes some getting used to, but it works.
In the award-winning Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, an epic police procedural, Ceylan (Climates, Three Monkeys) recreates the grinding pace of a night-long search for a body in the Turkish region of Sarilcullu.
Ceylan doesn’t do this to punish the audience, but to reveal the absurdities and the intricate tangents that alternately distract and guide the members of a three-car posse composed of two handcuffed suspected criminals, a prosecutor, a medical officer, some soldiers and a handful of police officers. Some scenes in Anatolia are surprisingly long, but Ceylan’s discursive style of story-telling succeeds in showing a mundane world governed by an abiding sense of mystery and tragedy.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is pointedly not about the search for one man’s corpse. If it were, we’d know what the group was looking for earlier on in the film. As it is, Ceylan’s searchers only talk obliquely about the object of their quest, never referring to it directly as a body or even as anything human, until we actually see the corpse in question. This investigation is about itself; it is a search for answers whose ultimate goal shifts each time it stalls.
It first, it’s about finding a geographic location. This search is seemingly interminable for a couple of reasons, including the sad fact that Kenan (Firat Tanis), one of the two suspects, can’t remember exactly where he buried the body.
During that search, we hear a story about a woman who predicts her own death. Discovering the meaning and the consequences of this second story indirectly helps to bring the first story to a conclusion. And when Ceylan reveals their connection, the audience understands much more about the victims and the criminals involved in the search, who become much more sympathetic characters.
None of the characters ever really does much more than go unthinkingly through the motions of searching for a whats-it, except once in a while when an an errant thought pops into their heads, like when Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) notes that the dead body resembles Clark Gable. Nusret then remembers that, when he was younger, his college classmates told him that he resembled Clark Gable.
At one point, Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) jokes that Arab (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan), the driver of his group’s car, only talks nonsense and is just a man of meaningless words. But in the omnipresent, harsh light cast by the group’s cars, everybody looking for the body seems impotent.
Ceylan keeps viewers on the outside of events, and presents Anatolia’s protagonists with a minimum of exposition. He emphasizes disjointed and often trivial discussions about everything, including buffalo yogurt (yes, really), and only provides partial explanations for the stuff that really needs addressing along the way. Like, we only find out why Kenan is tight-lipped and wary around Naci much later in the film, and the reason turns out to be a meaningful one.
That concept of slowly angling into Ceylan’s characters’ world is introduced to viewers in Anatolia’s opening scene, in which the camera slowly tightens its focus to reveal that our first shot is silhouettes of some members of the posse huddled inside a building. We’re positioned (literally, this time) on the outside and are looking in. To peer inside, we have to gaze through a conspicuously dirty window pane.
To get anywhere in this film, you need to be accordingly patient. Navigating the dialogue is like the opposite of combing through a government document in which all the irrelevant dialogue is redacted. Instead, all of the important information is buried in trivia.
In one scene, in which a soldier offers a cream biscuit to Nusret and Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), the soldier asks Nusret whether they should even consider the crime they're investigating to be within their jurisdiction considering that they’re 35 kilometers beyond the city’s limits. Nusret laughs him off, saying that since the event they’re investigating did occur within the limits, it mostly definitely is their responsibility. Shortly after this, Arab shakes a couple of apples off of a nearby tree, provoking Naci’s scorn. One apple rolls all the way down the hill, into a nearby stream. Ceylan lovingly tracks the course of this solitary apple, suggesting that it has some larger significance in the context of the posse’s greater search for meaning. Or not.
Ceylan’s characters all contribute in their own ways to a search that will lead Cemal to take responsibility for a man’s life. But that’s not immediately apparent. Events in Anatolia don’t necessarily have to matter in the long run. They only help to precipitate other events, making them potentially interesting. This actually makes Anatolia, in a sense, the ultimate stake-out film: There’s a lot of waiting, not for singular actions, but for a greater truth to reveal itself.
Though Once Upon a Time in Anatolia feels slow in parts, it actually builds to an astonishing little revelation. But to understand why it matters, you need to get to that point at exactly the right moment. Otherwise, the whole thing means nothing.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is screening at Film Forum until Jan. 17.