ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Written with considerable contrivance by himself, wife Ebru Ceylan, and Ercan Kesal, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da took the jury prize at Cannes that is just below the Palme d’Or. (It also won prizes for Ceylan’s direction from the Dublin critics and at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards). It is a police procedural—but, unusually, the action has been launched by the chief suspect’s (probably false) confession, and a long night’s search for where the victim’s body is buried, with the suspect in tow, revealing a tangle of personal details about those involved in the search, including the police chief, a doctor and a prosecutor. The dark, cloudy sky poses the threat of imminent storm and also projects a murkiness of motives and backgrounds; and it is all headed, after the body is finally found, for the medical autopsy room the next day. Here is a grim, at times beautiful film, one that is full of angst, anguish and remorse.

Not that the film is without lighter moments. Truly hilarious is the quarrelsome exchange about yogurt, conducted in the front seat of one of the two cars, between the police chief and his driver, with the exhausted, blank-faced prisoner visible in between them in the back seat. (Police Chief Naci addresses the driver throughout as “Arab.”) Nor does the entire law enforcement team strike us as being polished, professional and alert, such as when it is discovered that no one has brought along a body bag. The comic relief continues as the matter is debated as to which vehicle trunk will work best for transporting the corpse back into town from a country field. Of course, all this bumbling, a comical version of the murkiness already noted, is thematically and atmospherically pertinent.

However, almost all of the film’s 2½-hour length is bereft of such humor.

The central act, performed by Dr. Cemal during the autopsy, is one of compassion which much of what we have seen helps to explain. But one needs to read between the lines—and between the photographs that haunt the (very) good doctor.

There are things in the film that do not quite come off—for instance, Ceylan’s attempt to revive beauty comparable to that of the tomatoes tumbling down an Anatolian hillside in what remains his finest achievement, Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi, 1999). Even wider of the mark is his attempt to lend an aura of spiritual beauty to a girl serving tea and rekindling a kind of totemic hope in the prisoner, the doctor, the prosecutor, the police chief, and so forth, all of whom have been worn down by so much in life. The girl is silent; whether she is mysteriously mute by choice or defect, she fails to measure up, as character or symbol, to the silent ecstatic responses she magically elicits. Ceylan’s fleeting failures depress.  

All the acting is good, with one notable exception: Taner Birsel as Prosecutor Nusret, who is sublimely skeptical about Dr. Cemal’s skepticism on a certain matter, is wonderful.

This film is from Turkey and Bosnia/Herzegovina.

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