(Bir zamanlar Anadolu'da) 

Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Turkey. 2011

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Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, (2011), 150 minutes


A routine police investigation of a murder turns into a meditation on the human experience and the elusiveness of truth in Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's deeply felt Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, winner of the Cannes Jury Prize in 2011. Based on the experience of co-writer Ercan Kesal, a doctor who took part in the investigation of an actual murder twenty years ago, the film follows a dozen men as they hunt for a body during the course of one night in an arid stretch of land in the Anatolian steppes surrounding the town of Keskin. It is a work of profound intelligence that illuminates the richness and complexity of humanity.


Though Ceylan is focused on the mundane tasks of a police inquiry, his concern is metaphysical, underscored by the film's detached, minimalist style. Like Tarkovsky, the plot is insignificant except as a device to allow characters to interact, both with each other and with the landscapes they inhabit, gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Gohkan Tiryaki. While the killer supposedly committed the crime in a drunken rage in an argument over a woman, the film is notable for its ambiguity and very little is spelled out. According to Ceylan who claims allegiance to the style and substance of Chekhov, “If the audience doesn't join in the process, it's impossible to make it deeper, like literature.”


Most of the film takes place in the dark, disturbed only by the glare of headlights that look like fireballs descending from the night sky and a flash of lightning that reveals a strange face carved into a rock. Three cars contain the main protagonists: Doctor Cemal (Muhammat Uzuner), Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogen), Prosecutor Nasret (Taner Birsel), the driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan), and the murder suspects Kenan (Firat Tanis) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz). The inquiry takes a long time to get started because the accused suspects claim they were either too drunk or asleep to remember where the victim, Yasar (Erol Erarslan), was buried.


The caravan wanders the countryside going from one similar-looking water fountain to another, trying to locate a “round tree,” where they think the body can be found. As the night wears on, fatigue and frustration set in. Men make small talk about Buffalo yoghurt, prostate problems, and a sick child for whom the father needs to get pills. They talk about life and death, women, the passing of time, and the difference between the city and the country. The prosecutor tells the doctor a strange story about a woman who predicted her own death on a certain day and died on the very day she predicted. Nusret argues that no autopsy was necessary because it was clear the woman died of a heart attack.


The rational doctor, however, offers the theory that her death was a suicide brought on by taking a drug such as Digoxin that can bring on a heart attack and reminds the prosecutor that often suicide is a means of exacting revenge. The two and one half-hour film takes its time but ultimately becomes a character study of two complex men, the prosecutor and the doctor, revealing two fractured souls whose outward role hides their inner regret and loneliness. The experience becomes universal as the characters move beyond what they do to connect with the inner core of their being, revealing that, in their own way each is profoundly alone, struggling to move past painful memories to find connection and acceptance.


When the morning finally arrives and the body is recovered, the men return to town to confront the sullen widow, the angry son, and the reality of the autopsy with its need to document each step of the drawn out procedure. Unexpectedly, a moral dilemma arises on the part of the doctor performing the autopsy in a scene that connects him to his long suppressed humanity. There is humor scattered throughout the film, but a mood of sadness prevails. Though Ceylan claims that his films “are trying to understand the dark side of human nature,” Once Upon a Time in Anatolia recognizes life's interplay of both light and shadow.


In one of the film's most haunting scenes, the men stop in a small village and are invited by the mukhtar (Ercan Kesal) to have a meal as he talks about the town's backward conditions and the need for a new morgue. Then, surrounded by light, a beautiful young woman appears to serve tea to the men who are awestruck by her beauty. In that moment, Ceylan challenges us to be open to move beyond cynicism and be open to the possibility of purity, innocence, and grace. Though the film uncovers the secrets of men's souls, the catalyst for redemption is a woman.



Howard Schumann

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