'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia': Cannes 2011 Review

A long, slow haul but for the willing, a haunting journey into the heart of darkness in Turkish Anatolia

A search party hunts for a missing corpse in the drama from Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

In the last decade, the Turkish cinema has basked in the light of filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the writer-director confirms his stature in a long, slow, hypnotic film that explores the human condition through side glances and offhand remarks, caring very little about time, especially the viewer’s time, in eventless sequences without conventional action. Even the hardened press audience at Cannes burst out in nervous laughter when, almost 90 minutes into a film running over two and a half hours, the first plot point occurs.

It’s not just the length or the slow-moving storyline that makes the film difficult to access, but the extreme and unfamiliar way in which Ceylan deconstructs the story about the police looking for a dead man in the hills of Anatolia. When the body is at last dug up, themes of guilt and adultery come to the surface.

Clearly this is festival material of a very high level, whose audience will be difficult to conjure up beyond the cognoscenti and patrons of black tie film events. At the same time, for those willing to take the plunge, it is a deep and haunting work that lingers in the memory. 

Everything seems cut and dried as the film begins.  Three friends are laughing together over a modest meal. A few days later, in a search that will last all night long, two men are being driven around a remote rural area in two police cars and an army jeep. The squinting, silent Kenan (Firat Tanis) has confessed to murdering Yasar (Erol Erasian) and burying him, apparently with the help of the other man. Now the police chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) has called prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) all the way from Ankara to witness the discovery of the corpse.  Everything must be done properly, dictated in bureaucratic lingo and drafted into a report.

The problem is that, as the searchers drive along deserted roads through the windy hills, stopping at likely spots that all look the same in the dark, Kenan fails to locate the grave. The night goes on and the men grow weary, along with many members of the audience. The party finally stops off in a village for refreshment and are served by the mayor’s beautiful daughter. Then it’s back to the hills to search for the unholy grave.

As in a story by Chekhov, the first half of the film is filled with insignificant conversations that serve to delineate the characters, like the scientific-minded young doctor who’s divorced and the hot-headed police chief who has a sick child. As the camera slowly and implacably zooms in on their faces, it seems to reveal their very soul.

The chit-chat also abounds with hints which, if the viewer is a good detective, turn out to be highly significant later on. In the spirit of Michael Haneke’s Hidden, it’s essential to keep the eyes open and catch the clues that will make the ending work.

The prosecutor, played with commanding authority and a worldly twinkle in his eye by Taner Birsel, casually tells the quiet doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) about a friend’s wife who predicted her own death. Instead of being impressed, the doctor asks if an autopsy was performed to determine the cause of death. Here, too, lies a mystery.

The pace picks up in the film’s final hour, which takes place in a provincial town where the suspects are detained and a grisly autopsy is performed on the body. And things begin to happen, though their meaning needs to be puzzled out. Kenan, the accused man, is attacked by a young boy standing beside his mother – presumably the son of the dead man. Yet the look that passes between Kenan and the young woman suggests something else. Like Ceylan’s celebrated “Three Monkeys,” the characters all seem to be in emotionally charged triangular relationships; or as one man comments, wherever there’s trouble, look for a woman.

Ceylan’s background in still photography informs every shot, which rings with hidden feeling and a sense of intimacy. Gokhan Tiryaki’s cinematography emphasizes the stark, eerie beauty of the Anatolian landscape, an ancient world of nature that humans can’t even see without the help of headlights or a lightning storm.