Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
A few years ago, while reviewing Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2006 great film, “Climates,” I wrote:
In short, I was right. The filmmaker was capable of even greater heights. Yet, this level was only reached after the slight hiccup and regression that was 2009’s “Three Monkeys” — a good but ultimately unsatisfactory formula film that, despite virtuosic moments, was uninvolving.
Ceylan’s latest film, 2011’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da), is involving yet existential, crafted yet natural, sublime yet base, based on a true story yet utterly mythic, and a few other polarities that I think readers of this essay will prefer to discover for themselves. That stated, let me tell you what this film is not, despite the gush of praise from critics who have praised it, mindlessly critically cribbing from each other, despite not even remotely understanding the very film they praise. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is not a police procedural film, nor is it an homage nor riff on Sergio Leone’s cinema.
As to the first charge, yes, there is police procedural work that provides the external scaffolding structure of the film, but to state that this film is a police procedural is akin to stating that “Huckleberry Finn” is a book about the perils of 19th Century river rafting. It utterly misses the point that the film merely uses the scaffolding of the police procedural to dig at the existential issues its characters are dealing with, or, in many instances, not dealing with, even as they tangentially dart in and across their lives. And, at an even more profound level, the film is not even about the existential dilemma of a murder, which most critics seem to see as central to this film. No, this film could have been about a visit from a local exterminator, and what he encounters at a gnarly wood shed, and it would still have been a great work of art. That’s because the film is primarily about its characters: Who they are, why they are, how they are and became what they are. We never get easy answers, and, at a material level, we sometimes get no answers. But, it’s the way that Ceylan does or does not answer that is at the core of this film’s greatness, and, in reality, even Ceylan’s non-answers are just seeming non-answers, for in their demurrals are the answers, albeit not always the ones even a perceptive viewer will seek.
As for the references to Leone? Yes, there is the title, which harkens back to Leone’s two masterful films, “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” there is an early scene where the camera peers into a bar or restaurant and we see the eventual murder victim, and when we pull back the building and surrounds remind one of the old west, and there is a sort of mimicry of Leone’s intense peer and microscopic focus into the crags of the human mien, but that is where the two artists diverge. Leone’s concern, in both of his films, is more about the characters in their element, and whether or not they fit. In Ceylan’s film, his characters not only fit their surrounds, but they co-create them in myriad ways. Their miens reflect and project into their environs. We get subjective points of view wherein we don’t know if thought is speech, nor vice-versa (in one bravura scene). We see things that are clearly unreal, to the point of seeming to be almost bad special effects, yet we accept these, because if they were too real the characters’ moments would not be real. We also, then, because we are far more drawn into Ceylan’s characters than Leone’s, accept the unknowable, which includes several tropes that are dropped because, in fact, they are not germane to the film’s center, merely interesting asides that provide narrative decoration to acclimate the viewer to the deeper plumbs coming down the turnpike. In fact, the viewer not only accepts certain ellipses of knowledge, and tangential glances athwart minor characters’ diurnal do, but revels in them, for this is life — life — upon the screen; not merely a story. As well acted and written and crafted were Leone’s films, there is never a moment the viewer is not aware of the artifice of that great art. This is not a criticism, in the negative sense, of Leone’s masterworks, merely a differentiation of the two types of great cinema these two great artists plumb. Leone is the ultimate puppetmaster, full of bravado, who willingly shows his hand and moving lips to the audience, and smiles that, despite such, he still gets you in the end. You still feel something as it filters out from the intellect and down into whatever it is the soul constructs to house such. Ceylan does not do this. He turns over the reins to the viewer, or seems to. Ceylan suspends disbelief in a number of ways, with a number of methods. Even though his film in no way resembles the über-realistic films of John Cassavetes, he leaves you with a gut punch of the real that Leone’s films never could do. You know the people in a Ceylan film, despite their Turkish exotica, despite their different clothing, language, and customs. You have eaten, shat, farted, pissed, fucked, and sweated with them. In a Leone film, even set in America, you’ve never met the people Leone portrays. They are gods, archetypes, sui generis. Ceylan’s are not generic, but universal, in their forgettability and mediocrity.
But, enough critical wax, on to some basics, for the nonce. On a purely surface level, the plot of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is as follows: A murder has occurred, seemingly involving two brothers, a woman (Nihan Okutucu) and her son, and her murdered husband (Erol Eraslan). The body has been hauled from an unnamed Turkish town in the Anatolian steppes, out into the countryside. We see three cars driving in the fading twilight. Among the men in the cars are a Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), local cops, the local prosecutor (Turkish version of a District Attorney) Nusret (Taner Birsel), police chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), two manual laborers armed with shovels, and the two suspects — a smarter brother named Kenan (Firat Tanis) and his seemingly insane or retarded brother (Burhan Yildiz). The film is by far the most dialogue dependent of any of Ceylan’s films, and, as with the bulk of the film, the early portion is filled with masculine banter as the three cars drive around in the dark, looking for the spot the brothers claimed they buried the body, which may be in a field or in the hills near a round tree. The cops think the brothers are deliberately giving them the runaround, for fun, and this seems plausible, save for the fact that neither suspect is bright. It is only by film’s end that the viewer realizes the reason that the brothers are unsure of where the body is buried is because they likely did not commit the murder, but are simply taking the blame for another person — possibly the widow, whose son is claimed by Kenan to be his, not the dead husband’s progeny. Kenan claims that he had to kill the husband in self defense after he drunkenly told him that the boy was his child biologically — a seemingly trite and convenient excuse that can cover much truth.
Of course, early on, none of this is known, and there is no reason to suspect that the two brothers are NOT the killers. But, as the film goes on, their ignorance of the burial location, as well as their seeming surprise that the body was hogtied, points to the fact that they are acting as willing fall guys. But for whom? And why? As the inept men of authority search, they stop several times, bullshit with each other, make the occasional deep and/or cryptic remarks, and see things which may or may not be real. They also sometimes abuse the suspects, as the doctor and prosecutor banter on. It is these two men that form the core of insight in the film, as the prosecutor tells an anecdote to the doctor, about a gorgeous woman who seemingly predicted her death. This woman was a wife and, some months before giving birth, prophesied to her husband that, after she gives birth she will die. Seemingly healthy, this is exactly what happens. No autopsy was performed because the cause of death was listed as heart attack. The doctor, being the de facto stand in for the viewer, disputes the prosecutor’s claim that the woman’s death was a case of clairvoyance, and that the woman likely killed herself, by ingesting drugs that would bring on a heart attack. The prosecutor seems shaken — not only that he was likely wrong to believe in the supernatural, but that this suicide slipped past him. He then asks why she would kill herself, and the doctor suggests as a punishment for the living. This is when the doctor finds out the dead woman’s husband had cheated on her, although he states that the woman forgave him. The doctor disagrees, and the revelation of the infidelity, and the spite of the female sex, figures into both men’s lives, as the prosecutor’s demeanor changes, suggesting that he likely has cheated on his wife, for he seemingly fears consequences. The doctor, too, is divorced, and the suspicion is that he, too, had been unfaithful and lost his wife. This later comes back, at film’s end, to possibly alter the course of the investigation, autopsy, and subsequently recast the entire prior film in a new light.
Once the body is found, the ineptitude of the searchers becomes apparent, and when the action switches back to the local town, a mob wants to lynch the two brothers, while the son of the dead man tosses a rock at Kenan, that hits his real father in the eye. The prosecutor and doctor resume their talk on the gorgeous lady, and this is where the unspoken reverberations of that anecdote really tie the characters into the viewers’ expectations as, after the autopsy’s formalities are finished, we see the doctor’s assistant discover that the dead man had soil in his lungs, meaning that he was not dead when buried, but rather buried alive. Given that the two suspects are strong men, this leaves open the possibility that someone smaller and weaker may have thought they killed the man. Clearly the doctor thinks this, as well, and starts adding up, in his mind, the discrepancies only he has noticed throughout the film. He tells the assistant and the official autopsy recorder to omit the fact of the soil in the lungs from the official report. The film ends with an ambiguous whimper as we see the widow and son walk away from the hospital, as the doctor watches them from his window — a circular nod to the film’s end where the camera peers in at the murder victim’s last hours.
Yet, as stated, none of this is really what Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is about, and even if my surmise about the real story under the film is wrong, the point is this film is not a whodunnit but a whydunnit, and one on an existential order, not a material one. But it is not all gloom, angst, sturm and drang; there is a searing void of color to the humor the film inflicts into the wounds it creates in the psyche of its diegesis and exegesis. In a sense, this is the sort of film that Quentin Tarantino might make if he were to ever reach puberty. Probably my two favorite “light” moments are when, once the body is discovered, the lawmen go on a Clark Gable riff, and, a little later on, when they are about to head back to town, they discover that no one has brought a body bag, and the dead man has to be twisted into one of their car’s trunks. He is, but the trunk is also filled with fresh food from the men’s late night supper at a small town mayor’s home, where all the men are enraptured by the mayor’s pretty teenaged daughter; proving that pedophilia (or, technically, ephebophilia) knows no geographic boundaries. In short, this is the sort of film where rewatching it will only bear more such ripened fruits. It is the kind of film that only the dumb and inane think is slow and long, for although being almost an hour longer (157 minutes) than “Three Monkeys,” it feels much shorter.
Technically, the cinematography, in real nighttime conditions (about 75% of the film is shot in darkness), is hypnotic (the only visual flaw of the film is a too obvious imposition of a rock face that is illuminated in a lightning strike as the doctor urinates), and cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki gets major kudos, but, even more so is the almost nonexistent soundtrack, whose power is palpable, and shows how utterly superfluous most soundtracks are. The screenplay, by Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is the best in a Ceylan film yet. The reason for this is that it has all the depth and poesy of Ceylan’s earlier great films – “Climates” and “Distant” — plus it has some really dazzling dialogue, which is a major expansion of Ceylan’s writing powers, for the dialogue ranges from the diurnal (buffalo yogurt, lamb chops, pissing) to the metaphysical (death, ethics, purpose). The DVD, put out by Cinema Guild, presents the film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, where the white subtitles are framed against the black bars. There is no English language dubbing option, nor is there a commentary track. There are a number of good features, though, including a series of making of documentaries, a 24 minute long interview with Ceylan from the Cannes Film Festival, where his film won the Grand Prix for best film, and a theatrical trailer. The negative feature is a trite, cliché filled video “essay” by an inane someone named Haden Guest, who, it turns out, is the director of the Harvard Film Archive, and a booklet on Ceylan’s filmography.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a great film, and I want to end this review of it by returning to the idea that this is Ceylan’s greatest film, and explaining why. Aside from the fact that, technically, its screenplay is the deepest and broadest, in terms of including great dialogue, and narrative ellipses, the film also has the most roiling narrative, and the best example of this is the fact that Ceylan employs, better than all but a few films, the Hitchcockian idea of the MacGuffin — or the seeming narrative element that propels the art (and its protagonist(s)) whereas, in reality, the real element that is central to the art is something else. Some critics have noticed this element in the film but have targeted the wrong MacGuffin, claiming that the murder itself is the MacGuffin, but it’s clearly not, as the body is found 90 minutes into the film — over an hour from its end, therefore there has to be another element that acts as the de facto carrot for the narrative impulse. It is, like the claims that the film is a police procedural, simply false. The murder merely provides the milieu of the film for it becomes clear, within the first ten to 15-minutes of the film that the characters are not really driven by the murder, and most, in fact, seem bored or disgusted or tired of it. They each have their own reasons for being there — mostly duty or remuneration. I argue, the real MacGuffin comes into the film in the form of the aforementioned gorgeous woman tale that rapts the prosecutor and doctor. It enters the film at the time that, in more plot driven works, a “big revelation” would be due. As would be expected in a lesser work, we get hints that the murder of the dead man is something more than portrayed, for we get a comment from the prosecutor about how women get their revenge on men, we get an even earlier comment on the negative nature of the dead man, implying that his murder was somehow justified (and may explain the doctor’s later cover up of the actual cause of death) and we get to suspect that the dead man may have been abusive to the wife, which may have culminated in her presumed affair with Kenan — if he is to be believed that he is the father of the widow’s child. But, unlike a Hollywood film, none of this is spelt out linearly, but implied, requiring Negatively Capable abilities to thread it together. But, the main point is that, sans the gorgeous woman trope, the viewer would not have the insights into those characters: Their own failures in sexual relationships, and their abilities and weaknesses in doing their own jobs. The film raises ambiguity to an artistic level because it’s not ambiguity for its own sake, but as a tool to craft character, to move plot, and to deliver a philosophic message that goes beyond platitudes of depth and mystery and the like. In short, Ceylan learned from his “Three Monkeys” error of relying on a formula to get to the nub of a matter, and instead dive full bore into existence itself, to pull character out, and in turn craft narrative from. It is in this taffy twist of the artist that his art rose to new heights, and Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is a candy to stain the tongue. Here’s hoping that future twists augur even greater rise.