Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceyan is unlikely to attract heaving crowds to his sixth film, ‘Once Upon A Time in Anatolia’, but since when was the 51-year-old director of ‘Uzak’, ‘Climates’ and ‘Three Monkeys’ in it for the multiplex? Ceylan is a sly and daring screen artist of the highest order and should draw wild praise with this new film for challenging both himself and us, the audience, with this lengthy, rigorous and masterly portrait of a night and day in the life of a murder investigation on his country’s Anatolian steppes. ‘Once Upon A Time In Anatolia’ is a crime movie, but not as you know it, and as well as asking us to puzzle together fragments of a murder case, it also offers rich, and sometimes comic, ruminations on city, small-town and village attitudes, on cynical versus more feeling attitudes to life, on our ability to separate the personal and the professional and on the banalities that arises even in extreme, unusual situations. It might be about a murder, but it’s also about the passing of time (and, in a subtly different way, passing the time), and to stress both, Ceylan asks that we share nearly three hours with him and his film. We follow a group of 12 men in three vehicles – policemen, soldiers, two suspects, a doctor, a prosecutor and two men with shovels – as they trawl the countryside at night looking for a buried body, trying and failing several times before they make some progress. One minute they’re looking for freshly dug earth, the next they’re discussing the merits of cheese or the tell-tale signs of prostate cancer. With two prisoners in tow, they make a pit-stop at a village where we get a naturalistic portrait of everyday relations and where small, endearing differences emerge between the town folk of the investigation and their rural hosts. Back on the road, Ceylan moves around characters, and sometimes leaves them behind altogether for some staggering landscape shots. Night becomes dawn, and only when it’s morning do they return to town and the final chapter of the film unfolds in a police station and doctor’s surgery.
There are many eccentric, intriguing touches. Lightning flashes on a rock and illuminates an ancient carving. An apple falls of a tree, rolls down a hill and passes through a stream. Ceylan sometimes locks his camera on individual faces, although he also steps back and lets things unfold in attractive, compellingly lit wide shots. In many ways, it’s an ensemble piece in which the main event has happened and the lead character is dead. But, gradually, our interest focuses on the doctor (originally from Istanbul, and a proxy for the director, perhaps) and there are several conversations between him and the prosecutor as they discuss various emotional and pragmatic approaches to life in relation to someone close to the prosecutor who has recently died.
Displaying a new interest in words and story (albeit of the most elusive kind), ‘Once Upon A Time in Anatolia’ feels like a change of direction for Ceylan and may disappoint those who were especially attracted to the urbane melancholia of ‘Uzak’ and ‘Climates’. Ceylan set his last three films in Istanbul and they were all quiet, psychological portraits of individuals or families, even if his last, ‘Three Monkeys’, the tale of a corrupt politician and a wronged man, also flirted with the crime genre. The new film is also about crime, but its final word on genre is to reject it. Beyond being chronological, the film follows no obvious storytelling pattern. Things happen when they do and at a natural rhythm. There are stretches of silence, followed by bursts of chat; there are plot details revealed slyly, almost imperceptibly; there are shifts of tone and repetition. The film is also a test in patience: only by paying close attention and thinking hard on the spot will you gain all there is to gain from the film. Ceylan invites us along for the ride – but only if we’re up for it.
There are many silent stretches and Ceylan typically creates endless striking images, especially during the night-time scenes, when rain, thunder and lightning add to a foreboding, even apocalyptic air. But ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ is also unusually wordy and Ceylan plays with borders in language between the useless and useful, the banal and significant. It’s a mysterious and demanding work, and it marks a distinct progression in Ceylan’s career as he continues to gnaw at the boundaries of film storytelling with humour, grace, empathy and a dry, wry view of everyday life.