ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
Egyptian-Rigler, 11/6/2011, 1:30 PM
Chinese 1, 11/10/2011, 3:45 PM
By Maria Trakovsky
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, a new film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a moody, meditative and sensitively shot masterpiece that takes place in the Anatolian grasslands. It is both a calmly observed, slowly unfolding mystery about a nighttime police investigation and a contemplative study of various moral, ethical, philosophical and more routine questions that we deal with in our lives.
The film defies genres and speaks lyrically about subjects that many people avoid: illness, death, regret, memory, guilt, contrition, sacrifice and sorrow. There is also humor and hope in this work. Although the title suggests a fairytale, there are no clear heroes, villains, or an onscreen love story (unless you count a policeman’s cellphone ringtone—the melody from LOVE STORY). Instead, what Ceylan establishes is minimal: a group of police officials, including a medical doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and a busy urbane prosecutor (Taner Birsel), take two suspects on a trip, traveling in a procession of cars on dark, desolate roads. With this eerie nightscape, lit only by the harsh lights of the vehicles and some sudden lightning from a passing storm, he quickly creates a strange, saturnine atmosphere.
This film is an invitation to join a police team on an outing that turns out to be a very long night’s journey into day. Many scenes are full of an uneasy foreboding and an almost supernatural quality. Some are not for the faint of heart. At first, we barely notice the main prisoner as he is introduced, sitting in the back seat of a police car. But when given time to study him, we see an exhausted, sunken face full of profound suffering and a resigned martyrdom. He looks as if he has just stepped off an El Greco painting. We sympathize with him immediately, and are surprised at ourselves for doing so. He is so extremely tired that he constantly dozes off. The policemen guarding him don’t look much better. There is a weariness to them, and circles under their eyes. Most men in this tale are spent and burnt out by life, but take this as an almost normal state of affairs.
While Ceylan uses his signature spare style for much of the film, there are a few unexpected zooms that jolt the viewer and magnify the overall unnerving tone. As the night stretches on, the police grow increasingly tired and agitated. The situation escalates. As tempers flare, only the highest-ranking member of the group, the Prosecutor Nusret (who is haunted by his own private sorrow), keeps order in the night. The ultimate frailty of these men is brought into constant relief against the endless expanse of fields and hills, with whispering trees, grasses and streams.
This director is able to make things look both real and ethereal at once, and to illuminate several lives for us in the process. His characters struggle with universal concerns: family, career, love and loss. But they also deal, as we all do, with life’s little chores: the need to pick up a prescription for a relative, for instance. Ceylan easily blends the mundane with the sublime.
As dawn nears, the team decides to take a break at a nearby village. When their host offers them a chance to refuel with some lamb, hot tea and conversation, he brings up another classic problem that cuts across countless cultures and eras: the village youth are emigrating, leaving the countryside for cities, he complains.
There are very few women in this film, but when they do appear, they do so to great effect, as in this village sequence. A young woman offers some tea to the tired travelers in a scene so full of beauty and magic that it could easily be in a fairytale. Is it real? Hope flickers as does unsteady light from an oil lamp. A short dream sequence adds mystery to this segment and intensifies its phantasmagoric force.
Ceylan supplies his film with generous doses of humor. He manages to overlay the film’s funniest moments onto some of its most chilling mise-en-scène, with hilarious social commentary on police and their procedures. We may also laugh at the contrasts between what is seen onscreen and what the Prosecutor “objectively” describes in his fancy dictation for an official police report. In this way, the director teases us about the “official-ness” of all bureaucracy.
As it winds down, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA moves into inhabited spaces: streets, buildings, rooms, corridors and offices. Everything is demystified by daylight, but empathy and hope continue to coexist with violence. A cook feeds a hungry boy breakfast. The doctor’s final actions may also be seen as an act of kindness and pity. In the end, Ceylan gives us the freedom of interpretation, rather than a moral lesson.
Maria Trakovsky is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles. She holds a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies from NYU and can be reached at email@example.com.