Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Review #1,148

Director:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast:  Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel
Plot:  A group of men set out in search of a dead body in the Anatolian steppes.

Genre:  Drama / Crime
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize (Cannes).
Runtime:  157min
Rating:  NC16 for some nudity and coarse language.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia runs close to 160 minutes, far longer than any feature that director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has done before.  And then in his next film Winter Sleep (2014), he goes another forty minutes lengthier. 

Both films share similar themes and concerns with his shorter, more intimate works, yet the attempt to cover immense breadth and depth reveal so much about Ceylan’s singular pursuit of cinematic excellence – here’s a filmmaker who tries to make different kinds of movies while essentially saying the same. 

With Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the canvas is bigger.  The film unfolds over a single miserable night, centering on a group consisting of the police, commissioner, doctor, ground diggers and murder suspects who are all carpooling to the site of the dead body, or at least they think they are.

As they travel across the undulating mountainous terrain of the Anatolian landscape through a narrow and winding road, conversations about random things, most centering on their work and family, tell us more about their concerns and issues.  They stop to survey the terrain, only to find no body and move on. 

In one of Ceylan’s most mesmerizing sequences that he has ever directed, the convoy stops at an old village to rest and dine in the wee hours of the night.  This segment runs close to a half-hour, and the tone and pacing of this particular part is astonishing to experience, with allusions to myth, mystery and memory. 

The performances in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are measured and delivered with restraint.  No one stands out in particular because this is a collective ensemble performance.  Much of the film sees the characters interact with each other and the environment.  Occasionally, comedy comes out of it, like a character who has a fondness for collecting fruits.

The film sees Ceylan at his most methodical, with the narrative operating like an investigative procedural, but without any elements of a thriller – this is a drama through and through.  There are long stretches of stasis, particularly in the second half of the film, but while the film plods along, it is strangely alluring, and ultimately rewarding.

I’m in the opinion that Winter Sleep, despite its length, is a more engaging picture, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has its own mystical quality, and the fact that nearly two-thirds of the film was shot in the dark of night, and in the bare Anatolian steppes give it a rare cinematic artistry that only a handful of filmmakers working today can lay claim to.

Verdict:  This methodical investigative procedural is ultimately rewarding despite long stretches of stasis, and sees Ceylan in fine form.


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