The films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan are always nuanced, multi-faceted, and heavily layered examinations of their subject matter, though none captivate in such intriguing fashion as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This anti-mystery noir reestablishes well-entrenched tropes of crime thrillers (with a distinct lack of crime shown for one), helping the film to move at an antagonizing pace. This patience-testing pace is ultimately rewarding and offers itself to the grandiose beauty of the cinematography as the ragtag group of police, doctors, and prosecutors traverse the Anatolian hills at night. Playing out like a dream, this crime drama features no car chases, no gunfights, and none of the other all too familiar trappings associated with the genre.
Representing a testament to the filmmaking prowess of Ceylan, the audience becomes an observer and, in turn, we are forced to reconsider what we see and why we see it. A world of information is laid out before us and our perception of this information is informed by the perceptions of each character. Whilst the bigger picture lies in front of us waiting to be unpacked, we are given these characters’ perceptions, each believing in their own dogma and constantly undermined by their insecurities. The plot is straightforward on paper: a confessed killer under arrest leads a group of policemen, a young doctor, gravediggers, another suspect, and a prosecutor through the hills in search of the location where the suspects drunkenly murdered someone. The various narratives each of these characters bring slowly rise and fall apart before us as characters slowly reveal themselves whilst all set in search of the same goal: find the body.
The mundane and banal conversations and interactions between these characters are elevated by a pristine aesthetic quality, highlighting every minor detail in the frame. The film is littered with scenes of pure cinematic quality, from an apple innocently rolling down a hill to the candlelit face of a young girl captivating the search party. The process of establishing the narrative is pieced together through these drawn-out shots, often of the men in cars or in close proximity of each other.. The process of Ceylan’s filmmaking mirrors the intricacies of an in-depth investigation, making maximum use of every scene to provide detail at every turn.
Mesmerizing landscapes play such a pivotal role in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, almost as if these vast picturesque locations are characters in themselves. Whilst these locations are so grandiose and spectacular they serve to dwarf the cast, to somewhat minimize humanity, and to fully acknowledge how small we perhaps are against the backdrop of mountains and sky. Though it may perhaps minimize the living protagonists, it does aid in expressing the overwhelming sensation of hopelessness in search of the poor soul buried amongst these landscapes. Ceylan does not give in to the genre tropes of individual heroism saving the day- he instead acknowledges each individual’s role in such an investigation. As these characters merge into their surroundings, all working together despite being submerged in foliage and nature, they strive to combat the scale of their task.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan has established himself as a contemporary master of silence and how using it appropriately can embellish and mitigate tension when necessary. Perfectly balanced here is the banal chatter between officers and company that breaks these bouts of silence. From discussions about yogurts to the digressions of a lead detective at odds with a prosecutor, there is an undercurrent of bleak humor passing through each monologue. This skeleton narrative depiction of a criminal procedure not only functions as a revisionist crime genre but it shows how the emotional implications attached to such investigation affect each character. A confessed killer sits in the car between the officers and doctor; whilst they bicker about yogurt, an absurdist comedy begins to bubble to the surface but quickly disperses as each piece of the puzzle is found. Whilst the banal bickering rumbles on the camera slowly hones in on the criminal’s weary face, worn and hungover, the presence of sleep is always on the periphery. The criminal has confessed to this crime (admittedly drunk when he committed it), this sense of carnal regret becomes increasingly apparent on his face and through his body language. The absurd dialogue taking place around him, makes the suspect’s almost permanent silence louder.
Within Ceylan’s films are often themes of existentialism, individualism, and the monotony of societal life that intersects itself between the previous two. There is a sense of accomplishment within Anatolia, that Clouds of May, Distance, and Three Monkeys have all been striving towards. There are recurring themes of communication, often failed or ambiguous; these themes are present and key here. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is the film to confirm Ceylan as a superb filmmaker- he is a master of Turkish noir and is decidedly brilliant in what he chooses to write or perhaps underwrite when called for.
Ambiguity in general serves to fuel Anatolia’s remorseful tone and evident moral standpoint though there is no hurry to resolve any of the issues, however. Through dialogue the tone is often shifted, quiet climaxes are braced, and the atmosphere is palpable amongst words and landscapes. Where Ceylan is so successful with this detailed character study is in what we do not see, the murder and burial, leaving much to our imaginations. Answers are agonizingly just out of reach, demonstrated in particular with the character of the doctor. A jaded figure cut from a breed of professionalism and apparent sadness, the doctor plays an integral role in the film’s elusive conclusion. The final act teases and tantalizes more emotional responses from its audience so remarkably well as disillusionment fully sets in for police and criminals alike.