Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)


This movie is boring. An endurance test. I mean that as a high compliment. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan means to impress upon the viewer the harrowing dullness and endlessness of police work, and this is a crime drama that provides a direct antidote to the whiz-bang action-packed American TV shows like CSI which portray forensics and investigation as an exuberant parade of action and badassery. The characters in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia stand around and wait, smoke cigarettes, chit-chat about nothing much, share the occasional deep personal insight, use the bathroom, wait around some more, get into petty arguments, and wait and wait and wait as a suspect extremely slowly guides them to a dead body somewhere in the outskirts of Istanbul, in the desperate hours of a bleak dark night in the country.

Sound like fun? This police procedural and its contrarian impulses are carried through to their obvious conclusion over the course of 150 minutes that find the characters gradually coming into focus, the pensive stop-start rhythms trying and failing to settle into a satisfying sense of accomplishment that never arrives, and the audience feeling as worn down and exhausted as the cops. That’s the idea — this is real life, confused and pretty and dreadful. The characters are so realistic and well-performed they don’t really bear textual reduction. Muhammet Uzuner’s thoughtful Dr. Cemal, the pensive and angry Commissar played by Yilmaz Erdogan, and an aging, depressive prosecutor (Taner Birsel) all struggle with the breadth of the long evening in their own ways and each are as distinct and believably fucked up as real men. The same goes in a more quiet sense for their driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) and of course the prime suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis).

It’s implied that Kenan is doing his best to take the fall for his brother Ramazan, shown attempting to make claims about the murder that’s been committed and being shushed. This one of many half-delivered stories running underneath the vague, haphazard narrative here — the film is full of unexplained things, strange suggestions, unexplored dramas. Not all of these are verbal or even tangible, and some are fleeting and surreal enough to live primarily in the memory as only obliquely remembered dreams. When the men stay for the night in a nearby village with its mayor in the stark squalor of his home and its power outages, we have the indelible image of his young daughter passing out drinks, her kind candlelit face the sole presence of innocence and real beauty in the film, its mark reducing Kenan to sobs and shaking all of the men. Like much of the film, it’s an instance and an expression of raw despair that can’t be pared down except in faces, nonlinear thoughts, impressions. It would be pure cinema except that it all barely moves enough to be perceptible. The dialogue, meanwhile, is sometimes casual wallpaper, sometimes floats above almost as if a direct communication from a ghost to audience. The men speak alternately in the ribald chatter of male comaraderie and as though they are each narrating fables of their own lives. The connection of each moment to a larger narrative is difficult to parse out, as the roadmap we’re following — literally and otherwise — only becomes clear at the end of the film, when it reaches its devastating conclusion about the grave and sobering truths that lie in the unsaid.

Even superficially, Anatolia is significant for how well it captures a certain emptiness, an emptiness that doesn’t even necessarily trouble its characters. There’s something universal in the nature of all this boredom and malaise, the sense of dread of a long night at work that everyone knows no matter how much they love or hate what they do. And the act of standing and waiting has an inherent cinematic importance, for it’s the way that movies are made. Ceylan tells his story subtly, but its revelations have the capacity to be earth-shattering, its mysteries can haunt you for the days, all like the best and most scarring kind of classic film noir; it’s just that he approaches it so quietly and carefully that you barely notice the magnitude of all that’s happening.

Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki and editor Bora Göksingöl help immeasurably in rendering absorption in all this nearly inescapable. As slow as the film is, you hang onto every word and every moment, on edge for the next morsel of information about the case, the characters, the emotional status of all onscreen, the emotional status of those offscreen (wives, families, victims). By pacing the film so deliberately and forming a cast whose patience with the material is without a crack, Ceylan allows his sole concession to aesthetic convention to be the fact that the film is staggeringly lovely to look at, dark and gothic though it is. The night bursts through with the same note of eerie reality as Roger Deakins’ photography in No Country for Old Men; entire sequences are lit by headlight and the sense of space, especially in the wide-open spaces of the desert nights, is disarmingly and painstakingly immersive.

Through all this, Ceylan forgets no important perspective, including yours; in a given moment, by the end of the film we’re likely to know how everyone in the frame feels, no matter how much they have or haven’t said. Even as we come face to face with the sheer banality of crime, of investigation, especially of evil, we’re sobered by the effect on the faces not just of victims and their families, who shout out with bile and agony, but criminals, police, all involved in this carousel of sadness and loss. So fine, it’s a downer, but pipe down and watch it — it’s as rich as a novel, and its closing, somber concession that the truth is not always the ideal route, even for a crime scene investigator, is enough of a stunning twist — so quietly tossed off as though nothing’s happened! — that I can’t wait to catch it again. Save this one for a lonely, rainy Sunday.

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