Once upon a time in Anatolia… a minute passed. And then another minute passed, and another. Finally, after two –and-a-half hours, the film was over.
Nuri Birge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not for those with a low threshold of boredom, but like many slow films it has a mesmeric quality. The longer it goes on the more intimately we are drawn into the minds of the lead characters. It is a uniformly sad journey, with distant echoes of auteurs such as Tarkovsky and Antonioni. The Sergio Leone-style title is pure irony.
The story may be summarised very briefly: a group of police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor, and their drivers go searching for a body in the bare rolling hills outside a town in western Turkey. They are being guided by two murder suspects, one rat-faced and sullen, the other a fat simpleton. After many delays and frustrations, the corpse is found and transported back to the city, where an autopsy is performed.
There is almost no music apart from the random noise on the car radio. The characters have long, rambling conversations about all sorts of things – yoghurt is the first big topic, but we also hear about overtime payments, about the police inspector’s son who has ADD, and so on.
As the search drags on into the night the group puts up at a nearby village, where the mayor entertains them with a recital of local news, and tries to enlist their aid in his campaign to build a morgue.
There is a power black-out, but as the men sit in darkness they are jolted back to life by the sudden appearance of the mayor’s beautiful daughter framed by candle-light. She is like a vision from a Georges de la Tour painting, and each man gazes on her in mute wonder. This moment of revelation is soon over, but it lingers with them the next day, as they drive to the site of a shallow grave.
The doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and the prosecutor (Taner Birsel) hold melancholy conversations in the dark and the daylight. The prosecutor tells the story of a “gorgeous” woman who died exactly when she predicted. It was, of course, his own wife, and the story is an oblique confession of his guilt and remorse. The doctor is city-born, recently divorced and childless. He feels lonely in a deep, existential sense, filled with the slow-burning sadness of a life without meaning or purpose.
At one point during the search someone shakes a tree, and an apple falls to the ground and rolls down a hill. The camera follows its descent, moment by moment, until it lands in a rivulet alongside a group of other fallen apples. It trembles in the water, as if it might be swept along with the trickle, but by the time we pull away it hasn’t budged.
This apple, the symbol of knowledge in so many stories, acts as a central symbol. It stands for the randomness of life and destiny.
Only at the end of the movie, as the doctor watches from the window of the autopsy room and sees the son of the victim retrieve a football and kick it back down a slope, do we think again about the apple. The ball has been propelled by decisive action, not chance. In this we see a subtle message for the doctor: that one must take charge of life, not passively accept the workings of fate.
The moral is complicated by the fact that the presumed murderer, Kenan (Firat Tanis), claims that the boy is really his own son. As the details of the autopsy come to light, the doctor decides to spare everyone a few degrees of needless suffering.
Ceylan spares the viewer some needless suffering in the final, long autopsy scene. We don’t actually see the body being carved up, although there are a lot of loud squelching and cracking sounds. The body is just meat, all the real angst is to be found the minds and souls of those who play out this deadpan drama.
There is a beauty and subtlety in the way Ceylan alternates between sweeping views of the landscape and long close-ups of expressive faces with red-rimmed eyes and stubble. One might say that the faces are landscapes, while the landscape reflects a certain state of mind.
His night-time scenes are shot in all-encompassing blackness, while the daylight seems unnaturally bright. There is nothing tragic about this tale, it is merely bleak. Perhaps bleaker in ‘the cold light of day’, than in the night-time when figures move about like restless ghosts. This is the sixth feature by a director whose view of life seems to grow increasingly miserable as his films attract ever greater plaudits. Let’s hope his next project is a flop – another critical success could be life-threatening.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Turkey, rated M, 150 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 14, 2012