Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Review by Michael Nordine
Posted on 22 November 2011
Source Cinema Guild 35mm print
The bulk of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s scant narrative takes place over the course of a single night, much of it in real time. There’s been a murder, and two carfuls of policemen (plus a prosecutor and a doctor) are being led to an impromptu gravesite by the men responsible. We know that it’s night and that the lawyer has to leave early the next morning, but for much of the film we don’t know exactly what time it is. It seems late, largely as a result of the deep, isolating dark, but the sun has yet to set in the first scene and the ensuing murk seems somehow too consuming to be real. A two-and-a-half hour runtime and measured pacing combine to make Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest work nothing if not a durational experience, but it becomes so temporally unanchored as to also be disorienting in spite of its seeming straightforwardness. Imagining the field of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry as a moonlit graveyard populated by a single corpse (which, really, is what it was meant to be) will give one an accurate enough idea of the setting, but there’s something about the way it stretches on and on that defies reckoning. “Everywhere looks kind of the same,” a man mutters early on. He’s right, but the overwhelming sameness of it all hums with an almost mythic quality from which the film derives much of its implicit meaning.
This idea of monotony masking dark secrets and desires is present elsewhere as well. The title, for instance: it at first seems hackneyed but, when half-sarcastically spoken aloud by a character as a suggestion for how to make the long night’s events seem grander, more meaningful, it takes on thematic shape. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote; Bilge’s characters go one step further by inserting themselves into these stories, with one of them even going so far as to tell his own sad tale without revealing that he’s the main character. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is replete with sadness, almost none of it expressed forthright. The viewer is thus tasked with finding points of connection between the all-male main cast, whose plenitude only amplifies their individual sorrows. If Ceylan’s film seems slow in spelling this out, it’s only because his characters are so guarded that nothing short of the inverted fairytale of a night they’re experiencing together could make them reveal what it is they keep hidden from the outside world. These are lonely, repressed men, and the slow process by which this becomes clear to us is more folkloric than cathartic.
The film introduces itself as a police procedural, and in this regard it’s both startlingly realistic and entirely misleading. Few details of the open-and-shut case itself are explored in any real depth that doesn’t feel incidental, but the banality of nitty-gritty police work is exhaustively charted. The process of finding the deceased’s body is shown to be long, arduous, and even a waste of time for several present, most of whom have caught on to the fact that the killers are stalling for time. In delaying the inevitable, they’re also postponing the carrying out of their own fate, of course, and it’s to this impulse that much of the protracted length is owed. Ceylan’s interest in both crime and punishment lies largely in their dual ability to serve as a starting point for a treatise on mundanity and transcendence; how and why the murderers did what they did initially amounts to little more than a poignant afterthought, one last piece to the puzzle that, while certainly pretty, isn’t wholly necessary to one’s grasp of the larger picture. The revelation of infidelity in more than one story, however, proves to be an essential through-line. There’s a sense of irrevocability to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, nowhere more so than in its mentions of sexual and romantic betrayal. There can be no turning back from such a thing, no way to right the wrong; it only causes more pain, some of it ending in death.
That Ceylan uses a subject most often reserved for thrillers and action movies to reach this point is one of his film’s most revealing facets: if even this sort of life consists of such drudgery, what hope does that leave for the rest of us? Still, this goes both ways. Ceylan is highly attuned to the moments of grace that accent long periods of stillness, and it’s in such instances that the story reveals itself as an almost fantastical affair. When the first of these occurs, we’re put on edge in such a way that has us constantly awaiting the next. The slow-going narrative uses these moments as punctuation marks – a few exclamation points here and there, but mostly question marks and ellipses – which collectively emerge as the film’s most beatific setpieces.
Ceylan devotes much attention to sheen and surface, but never at the expense of what lies beneath: the beauty of his and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki’s visuals is underscored by how much they quietly convey. This is the work of immensely gifted image-makers who know how and when to amplify both beauty and ugliness, often to similar effect. The expansive plains on which Once Upon a Time in Anatolia take place are initially striking, eventually overwhelming, and always fraught with unease. Something bad has happened here, and one can’t escape the feeling that it wasn’t an isolated incident. What’s remarkable isn’t just that all this is as visually arresting as it is, but that this treatment is given to such inconspicuous people, places, and events. In what may be the most beautifully and thematically rich shot of the entire film, for instance, an apple rolls down a hill and into a stream, floats downstream for several seconds, and finally comes to a stop. It’s marvelous in a way words fail to express. As with the title, Ceylan elevates the quotidian to the level of the supernatural if not the divine. He so convincingly portrays the smallest moments as being the most meaningful that they at times seem holy.
A scene occurring near the midway point is the most breathtaking of these. In it, the characters’ faces – criminals included – become a series of moving portraits as they’re visited in the dark by a young woman bearing light and tea in the darkness of a home that’s just lost electricity. The men look upon her the way they would an angel. The effect is intensified when, seconds later, one of the two murderers (who himself has one of the most miserably expressive faces you’ll ever see) is visited by the ghost of the man he and his brother killed. Then he weeps. He’s caught sight of a radiant being whose understated beauty is only heightened by the fact that he’ll never see her again and, for the moment he’s allowed to linger in her afterglow, he finally understands the implications of what he’s done.