DIRECTED BY NURI BILGE CEYLAN
Despite the mythic promise of its title and its police-procedural trappings, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from gifted Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is an experience rooted in the mundane. For a substantial segment of the film’s nearly three-hour duration, its protagonists—a prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and his investigative entourage—share banal, road-weary banter as they journey through the rolling countryside, from dusk to dawn, in what feels like real time. Their purpose is to recover the corpse of a murdered man, but their anecdotes and musings—on topics ranging from yogurt to prostate exams—lend the proceedings the air of a lengthy but thoroughly commonplace commute.
Their efforts also assume more than a hint of the absurd. The confessed killer (Firat Tanis) has agreed to lead the lawmen and a medical examiner (Muhammet Uzuner) to the site where he buried the body, but has forgotten its precise location. The result is a seemingly interminable sequence of darkly comic pit stops, which each conclude with assurances from the increasingly ill-tempered police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan) that the true crime scene lies just beyond the next bend.
If “glacial” is a generous assessment of the pace of these early (non-)developments, Ceylan’s compositions, at least, are instantly arresting. The writer-director is a noted still photographer, and he and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki work wonders with the widescreen frame. Long shots of the convoy cutting swaths of light through the inky terrain achieve a painterly beauty, as do close-ups of the craggy faces of Ceylan’s wonderfully expressive cast. Their performances, in turn, convey the rare sense that their characters exist in a flesh-and-blood reality that extends beyond the events of the film.
Indeed, Anataloia is filled with references to off-screen occurrences, which Ceylan often illuminates only gradually, and by vague implication. It’s a technique that will confound those expecting the tidy explication offered by standard whodunits, but it serves Ceylan’s more profound purposes. Anatolia is ultimately a melancholy meditation on masculinity, mortality, the search for greater meaning, and the often imperfect relationship between truth and justice.
This is quintessential art-house fare—with the pedigree of a Cannes Grand Prix win to prove it—but patient, perceptive audiences will marvel at Ceylan’s capacity to harness the routine and the ridiculous in order to conjure up the sublime.