September 1, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da), 2011, Nuri Bilge Ceylan

5/5 stars

On a Turkish steppe, police investigators search for where a murder victim was buried. The killer doesn’t know; he was drunk then, and his retarded brother is not much help. Is the body by a fountain where it’s flat and there’s a roundish tree, or is it where it’s hilly, or is he just sadistically aggravating their annoyance and idly dragging them around the countryside? Turkey’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA was passed up for the shortlist; but I think it’s an impeccable and unmissable piece of work.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a masterful and intriguing filmmaker. The shots he takes are usually indistinct and fleeting, sometimes dark, sometimes almost vaporous, but the visuals are still arresting and wonderfully composed. Threaded through all the painterly images are insignificant/significant conversations… buffalo yoghurt, honey, hard local politics… and tenderly deep questions… What is mercy? What is patience? Why be suspicious? Why have family?… asked in tones that are sometimes solemn and insular, sometimes warm-hearted and funny, always keenly philanthropic and brave.

Basically, I don’t know how ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA was ever scripted. A police crew takes their suspect to a distant spot of land where he says, vaguely, that he might have buried his suspects. They eventually find the body, take it back to the city, and begin an autopsy. That’s it.

But even the boring spots, and I don’t know how many more/fewer of those there’ll be for other viewers, crackle with humor (“Look, don’t give me dams now”; “Bend him forward. He’ll fit.”) and ambition (the big, dusty, early-morning landscapes; the cars’ headlights everywhere; the entire police procedure (jot, exam, report, car-trip) faithfully dramatized).

In several heartbreakingly sincere dialogues, the doctor steps forward, slowly, as the protagonist in Ceylan’s film. With Arap, he deals first in minutia: overtime… ‘letting off steam’ by firing a gun… ‘If you can’t manage, they’ll manage you’… But their talk soon strikes an importantly metafictional note, when Arap mentions to the doctor how, one day, he might get a kick out of this: “You’ll have a story to tell. ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia, when I was out in the sticks, I remember one night it began like this.’ You can tell it like a fairytale…” and then a passenger train rolls by in the near distance. Only 30 minutes into the film and already it’s amazing.

Later, with the prosecutor, the doctor hears about a gorgeous woman who predicted her own death and died on that date exactly. ‘Well, how could that be?’ he asks, ‘Was an autopsy done? She might have poisoned herself.’ A lower-ranking cop eventually cuts in, asking if this area is in their purview still or if it’s gendarmerie territory; he’d (pitiably) recorded their distance from the city center. The prosecutor grabs an apple from a nearby tree, and the camera watches as it, and then another, and then another, fall from the tree and roll away.

Much later, they pick the discussion back up and more deeply discuss the possibility of suicide. And eventually, as the prosecutor gradually reveals more prickliness and awkwardness and discomfort (but, still, fascination) at the topic, you’re left wondering: was this woman his own wife?

The film ends as an autopsy begins, while the doctor — in the same room, but as much out of the way as he can be — steps around, nervously. He looks out the window then and sees a boy and his mom coming down the hillside above a school’s playground; the boy looks back, sees a ball sail up behind them but nearby, and decides to run back to retrieve it, throw it back down to the playground. There’s a recurring idea, in the doctor’s and the prosecutor’s and Arap’s and the other participants’ discussions, that children can’t escape, just can’t escape, their parent’s failings. Maybe that’s an example.



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