Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

When we go to the movies, our usual expectations as viewers consist of being given an interesting plot, to be taken on a journey that (hopefully) enthrals us and provides us with good entertainment. In terms of crime drama, if the plot swings on a murder and a police investigation, we naturally expect to discover who the murderer was, the motive for the crime, how it took place (often revealed in clever twist endings) and how the problems it has created for the characters are resolved.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not nearly so simple or conventional. It is, in the most basic of terms, a police procedural. Taking place over one night and the following day, we see the local police, together with a prosecutor who has been dragged from home on the promise that together, they will uncover the corpse of a murdered man, as his killers have confessed and are willing to lead them to the body.

Whereas most filmmakers would spend a great deal of time contriving dialogue and scenarios to explain to their viewers how this crime has occurred and what the reasons for it were, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not interested in the slightest about this. What he is interested in is exploring how investigations really work: any hint of melodrama is stripped away, to leave only the arduous monotony of the job, the frustrating setbacks and errors, the tired, formal and impersonal language with which crimes have to be reported, and the emotionally draining effects that these combine to impose on the people left to pick up the pieces after a murder.

It is a long, difficult film, and yet for the whole of its running time, it is never anything less than fascinating. Ceylan’s idea was an inspired one to begin with, but in other, less confident hands, this movie could easily have been a heavy-handed, soporific exploration of ennui and disillusionment. These two themes are central in the film, but what I wasn’t expecting at all was the amount of satiric, deadpan humour – perfectly timed and strangely in keeping with the feel of the film – and the poetry in the visuals. I will not describe their brilliance here, but leave them for you to discover for yourselves.

On the surface, this film is painstakingly slow and strictly unsensational, but the genius of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia lies in the details, and in how subtly and realistically it reveals the inner characters of its protagonists – their frustrations, personal tragedies and cynicism. Throughout the course of the movie, we see one man in particular make the sad progression into the masculine, passionless disillusionment that accompanies loss and age, and which many of his male companions have sunk into already.  

Perhaps my favourite part of the film is a sequence in which the team, exhausted for the night, and in need of food and shelter, decide to rest at a nearby village, which is slowly but surely being forgotten by the world around it. There are three stunning scenes in this section: one involving a conversation over dinner between the mayor of the village and his guests, a poetic sequence about beauty and passion, and finally a private, tortured conversation between the prosecutor and a doctor, which will later lead to a painful revelation about the prosecutor’s past. And this is what I understand the movie to really be about, once we have delved beyond the ennui and disillusionment: love, time and change.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a strange, superb film – at once utterly distinctive, original, mystical, closely observed and quietly moving. You will need patience to sit through it, but believe me, that patience is rewarded in spades. In my humble opinion, this unassuming, eccentric piece of work is one of the best films of the year so far.

15 certificate

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (March ’12)