Sunday, July 15, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Death cannot be hidden under the guise of earth.
Over the course of one night driving through the central steppe region of Turkey, a confessed murderer, an accomplice, the police commissar, a prosecutor, a town doctor, and several officers attempt to find where the victim is buried, the search complicated by the dark landscape and the primary suspect’s drunken recall. The story is simple, but not simplistic. This death, and the notion of death itself, hangs in the air among the men; it will steep throughout the film. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a remarkable, beautiful film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who co-wrote the script with Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal.

Even under cover of night, this pastoral region of Anatolia is stunning, and Ceylan incorporates the environment in such a way that influences story, character, and tone. (The cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki, using high-definition video, finally made me a convert to the aesthetic capabilities of that format. I will always prefer film because of its intrinsic qualities – and partly because of tradition – but this work was absolutely gorgeous.) The winding, indistinct hills serve as impediment to the search, as an unmarked canvas for the distraught, pensive nature of the men, and, particularly in the judicious long shots, as subtle extra-narrative touches, extending beyond the men’s scope to the impermanence of life. This is an existential parable on mortality and perception, quietly told in the form of a police procedural. The procedural element and ensemble cast are so immediately captivating, however, that they allow for the film to suggest this larger commentary on mortality without it seeming like a treatise or exercise. Police Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) is already frustrated as the story joins the search-in-progress at dusk; he’s under more scrutiny with respected Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) among the party. Naci and his driver, Arab Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), talk about unofficial, personal matters as they escort the suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis) to each possible burial site. Ali at first comes across as nearly inconsequential, simply a driver, but he is as troubled and introspective as the other members of the party. Kenan is an uneasy villain, we don’t know what he might have done, and it seems that he might not remember either. The last key player is Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), the most levelheaded of the group, somewhat of an outsider to these proceedings. Ceylan doesn’t default to using Cemal as an audience surrogate, but it gradually becomes clear that his character has more importance to the story.

An unofficial trailer without spoilers:

I’m increasingly of the opinion that most films should be as much of a surprise as possible, so I don’t wish to comment further on the story of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. I trust that the trailer will convince you of how beautiful-looking the film is. There is one particular sequence, not revealed in the trailer, which is among the most “human” and humane pieces of art I’ve ever encountered, and is directed with such a delicate precision that as it progressed, even before the turn of the scene occurred, I found myself drying my eyes.  This film is unassuming but trenchant, and I’m certain that it will be among my favorite films of 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Though its glacial pacing will represent a significant hurdle for many viewers, the film grows steadily more involving as dawn breaks and the men make their way back home, and its unflinching observations of the legal and medical establishment at work frequently rivet. Visually, it's as gorgeous a film as Ceylan has made.