Dir.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan.Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2011.

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It was Sergio Leone who started the “Once Upon a Time in . . .” trend in film titles, with “the West” and “America” as his subjects. Since then we have had Mexico, Mumbai, the Midlands, China, and India (this last alternatively known as Lagaan, a surprisingly gripping drama about a cricket match).

I have seen three previous films by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Uzak, Climates, and Three Monkeys, all hugely impressive. But they are all overshadowed by Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the best new release I saw in 2012 (though made a year earlier). Ostensibly a crime drama, most of the film consists of a dozen men driving around the countryside in three cars one night, including a confessed murderer, some police, a public prosecutor, a doctor, and gravediggers. The “mystery” is the whereabouts of the victim’s body, as the murderer was drunk when he buried it and cannot remember the location. This is a film whose plot is relatively unimportant; it is much more about the mood, the atmosphere, and in particular the effect of the whole night and following morning on the character who gradually emerges as the central one, namely the doctor.

In the course of the long night various conversations take place, some about trivial things such as the merits of cheese or yogurt, and whether one character looks like Clark Gable, others about matters relating to mortality, in particular a story told by the prosecutor to the doctor about a young woman who predicted the precise date of her (natural) death. At a key point during the night the party stop off for a meal at the home of the local mayor, where, during a power cut, they are each entranced by the vision of the mayor’s beautiful young daughter, her face lit up by a lantern. In the film’s last section, the following morning, the doctor has to be present at an autopsy.
All the main characters are affected by the night’s events. They have been sent on what seems at times to be a wild goose chase, they are quite fed up, and they are having to cope with some potentially rather gruesome work, until they are stopped short in their tracks by the angelic vision of the girl. All this is seen most of all in their faces (the acting is universally brilliant).

The style of the film is slow and contemplative, the mood is melancholic (and clearly not to all tastes). A typical shot is of groups of men standing some way off in the countryside by night (certainly best seen on the big screen). There are clear similarities with the films of the Iranian director Kiarostami, with shots of cars moving along long winding roads up and down hillsides, interspersed with the occasional shot of fruit falling off a tree and rolling down, down, down into a river.

And the autopsy, at which we are present in the room? We don’t see it, but we hear it, while the doctor dictates his report. And, if we wish, we can allow our imagination to let us see it. As it comes to an end, the doctor gazes out of the window at the victim’s wife and child as they depart into the distance. We are left to ponder what he is thinking and feeling.
A film which demands a second viewing, and probably more.

Alan Pavelin

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