Simon Dillon reviews the film

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

This Oscar nominated Turkish film from Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been on my must-see list for some time, and this week it finally made it's way to Plymouth's Arts Centre, courtesy of a defiantly non-digital 35mm print complete with scratches at the start and end of reels (does anyone else miss 35mm as much as I do?).

The plot unfolds in a single 24 hour period; beginning at dusk as a convey of police vehicles arrive in the desert carrying two alleged murderers, a prosecutor, doctor, detectives and other police officials. The recently arrested men have agreed to assist in locating the body of the man they supposedly killed earlier in an effort to get their sentences cut, but there is confusion as to where the body was buried, and it soon becomes very apparent that all is not as cut and dried as it seems.

All of which makes the film sound like a thriller, but it isn't really. This set-up is merely a hook for the subsequent stately meditation on the human condition. Once upon a time in Anatolia is not a film for a simple thrill-seeking audience, so if you want car chases and explosions look elsewhere. However, those who enjoy beautifully shot, slow-burning, spiritually questioning films with a plethora of ambiguity will no doubt be enraptured and infuriated in equal measure. I say infuriated because there are several things not tied up in neat bundles, and that will doubtless irritate some. But for me, I can find little if anything to criticise in this film, except to say that isn't for everyone.

Once upon a time in Anatolia daringly echoes Sergio Leone's masterpieces not only with the Once upon a time prefix, but with its sedate pace and beautiful, mesmerising visuals. Ceylan allows much of the plot to play out in long shot, often beginning with vehicles emerging from desert horizons, driving into the foreground, and their occupants subsequently getting out and engaging in discussions. In this respect it also recalls David Lean, especially Lawrence of Arabia. Particularly in the first half, the film oozes with atmosphere as the boredom and frustration of the police in their efforts to find the body are echoed in the wind and thunderstorms amid the increasingly sinister desert. There are moments of black comedy and pathos throughout, especially in the subtle exploration of the three central characters: Naci, the detective in charge, Cemal, the doctor, and Nusret, the prosecutor (by the way, Yilmaz Erdogan, Muhammet Uzuner and Taner Birsel respectively all give phenomenal performances).

To say too much more will spoil the film, but there are three very profound moments that underscore the spiritually intriguing nature of the screenplay. One of these occurs in the finale and therefore cannot be discussed, but two others are worth mentioning here. One involves an apple falling from a tree, bouncing down a hill and eventually coming to rest in a stream amid other decaying apples that have fallen along the same path. This is an obvious metaphor for human life, but also the apple has emotive connotations of the Garden of Eden and original sin.

Furthermore, there is a truly astonishing sequence later on when the police and their quarries take shelter in a local village and are served food and drinks by the daughter of their host. Police and criminals alike are mesmerised by her beauty and she has a profound effect on them all, for different reasons. Again, the daughter is clearly a metaphor, but for what? An angel? The conscience of the criminal? The little good that survives amid a bleak and desperate world?

Once upon a time in Anatolia will be dismissed by some as long, ponderous and dull. It's certainly long, but I also found it completely arresting, and possibly even a masterpiece. I don't know. I'll have to think about it a little more, but it will almost certainly appear on my ten best films of the year list. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.