Article/ Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Dark Night of the Soul

Turkey’s most acclaimed filmmaker continues his exploration of the human condition

By Jason Wood

Combining modest working methods with a highly distinctive visual sensibility, the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan eloquently speak of the emotional impassivity of 21st-century life.

Initially a photographer, Ceylan’s first foray into the moving image was the short Cocoon (1995). Shot in striking black and white, with Ceylan also acting as producer, co-editor and cinematographer, this brief, wordless film suggests the impossibility of companionship, one of the defining motifs of the director’s work. Ceylan’s debut feature, Small Town (1997), emerged two years later. Told from the perspective of two children over four interconnected segments running parallel to the seasons, it served notice of the filmmaker’s gift for wry comedy and talent for framing of characters and landscapes in a striking and visually arresting way.

Clouds of May (1999) cemented Ceylan’s clarity of vision and his sensitivity to the delicate nuances of life. Once again, it offers a crisply composed inquiry into the vagaries of country living. An observation of people coming together, briefly interacting and then gently drifting apart again, the film is inscribed with a profound reverence for the lives of its characters. In these films, Ceylan cast non-professional actors and family members, whilst establishing his stature as a cinematographer.

Ceylan’s thematic concerns and unique visual style coalesced to stunning effect with the semi-autobiographical Distant (2002). A story of two remote relatives awkwardly thrown together, the film renders modern Istanbul as a desolate, if intermittently picturesque, snow-cloaked metropolis, with the director drawing on Chekhov and Tarkovsky in his analysis of the alienating effects of urban life. It deservedly won the Grand Prix at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.

Ceylan’s wife Ebru has been a constant contributor to his films, in a variety of guises. However, in Climates (2006), Ebru and Nuri stepping in front of the camera for an intense and unflinching look at a marriage on the brink of collapse. Wilfully blurring the distinction between on- and off-screen lives, Climates makes for frequently uncomfortable and emotionally devastating experience. Yet it also remains compelling, revealing Ceylan as a master storyteller who recognises and rigorously investigates the potential for loneliness and self-destruction within us all.

Pioneering in its use of high-definition images, Three Monkeys (2008) expands the unspoken dynamics of a dysfunctional family to society as a whole. Unleashing a maelstrom of violence, moral decay and ruined lives, this gripping psychological drama examines the fall-out from a hit and run traffic accident, to present a darkly malevolent civilization slowly suffocating through its own avarice and weakness.

Ceylan’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (a nod towards Sergio Leone) once again saw the filmmaker awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes. It stands as one of Ceylan’s finest achievements. Full of piercing insights and dark humour, it is an epic portrayal of a night and a day in a murder investigation. Beautifully photographed in the Anatolian steppes by Gökhan Tiryaki, this meticulously constructed police procedural concerns bickering law enforcement officers attempting to locate the body of a man killed in a local brawl. Replicating the ebb and flow of human life, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia unfolds like a fascinating game of chess, with clues and gestures ambiguously revealed. A film intrigued by the concept of truth, and the manner in which we arrive at it, it is flawless filmmaking by Ceylan.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 16 March