Thursday, March 8, 2012

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia ****
Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Written by: Ebru Ceylan & Nuri Bilge Ceylan & Ercan Kesal.
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner (Doctor Cemal), Yilmaz Erdogan (Commissar Naci), Taner Birsel (Prosecutor Nusret), Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan (Driver Arab Ali), Firat Tanis (Suspect Kenan), Ercan Kesal (Mukhtar), Mrol Erarslan (Murder Victim Yasar), Ugur Aslanoglu (Courthouse Driver Tevfik), Murat Kiliç (Police Officer Izzet), Safak Karali (Courthouse Clerk Abidin), Emre Sen (Sergeant Onder), Burhan Yildiz (Suspect Ramazan), Nihan Okutucu (Yasar's wife Gülnaz), Cansu Demirci (Mukhtar's Daughter Cemile), Kubilay Tunçer (Autopsy Technician Sakir).

Nuri Blige Ceylons Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is part of a growing number of crime films where the closer you look, the less you seem to know. David Fincher`s Zodiac is the best of these recent films, but Bong Joon-ho`s brilliant Memories of Murder, Cornielu Porumboiu`s Police Adjective and his countryman Cristi Puiu`s Aurora, also fit the bill nicely. While all of these films are vastly different, the one thing they share is that none of the central mysteries in them can be easily explained away. While the movies concern themselves with the details of the case, they can never explain everything about them.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia opens on a convoy of police vehicles heading out in the hills and fields of small town Turkey at night, where they are looking for a body. The two killers have already confessed to killing the victim, so this isn’t a whodunit at all. But as they drive from one location to another – all of them look very similar to each other, the killers are never quite sure if this is where they have buried the body. Most of the action is limited to one car – where police chief Naci, two other officers, the medical examiner Cemal, and one of the confessed killers, Kenan – the one leading them from site to site – sit. They talk – about everything and nothing – and become increasingly frustrated at the lack of a body, and the time this is all taking. The eventually have to stop to eat – at the residence of a small town mayor, who uses the opportunity to try and hit up the Prosecutor, in another car, for more money. Eventually – at around the half-way point of this two and half hour long movie – the body will be discovered, and the movie then switches gears – from search to documentation.

This is a movie mainly about the men on the journey – more so than the crime or the journey itself. Eventually, three of them snap more clearly into focus – the police chief, the doctor and the prosecutor. Yet the movie never really attempts to explain all their mysteries away. Ceylon, as always, favors long shots, often in close-up, of these men thinking as they stare off into space. What are they thinking? The answer to that question changes throughout the course of the movie, or at least our perception of what that answer is, does. Women are few and far between in the movie, but their presence is felt throughout. The only woman we even see during the long search sequences is the beautiful daughter of the mayor, seen only in candlelight, as she brings tea to the men. They all stop and stare at her. Yes, she is beautiful, but there`s more than that. She represents their idea of female perfection, but also their own lost youth, and their wives when they were younger. We do not meet any of these three men`s wives, but through their words, we feel that we know them. They are all distant from their wives in one way or another – for reasons hinted at throughout the movie.

Once the body is discovered, the movie switches gears, and yet while things should become clearer through the investigation, they simply become more complicated. Miscommunication and willful lies simply serve to complicate things further. The autopsy that ends the film is sickening, not because of what is shown (very little is), but because of the sounds of bones being saw, organs being removed and examined.

Nuri Blige Ceylon has made a name for himself in the past decade with films like Distant, Climates and Three Monkeys. Stylistically similar to those earlier efforts, but far more complex, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is his supreme achievement so far. This is one of the best films of the year.


  1. This film was a massive waste of time. I'm usually into pondering arthouse cimena but this just took the piss. Nice photography but that was all that interested me.

  2. What a handful of patient moviegoers may find in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, however, is a subtle, gorgeous and mysterious allegory that may be Ceylan's masterwork to date.