The Strong, Silent Type
by Benjamin Mercer

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, Cinema Guild

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s slow, stunning Once Upon a Time in Anatolia begins with a long nocturnal search for “the place.” Two brothers have just confessed to murdering another and burying him far outside of town, and a small caravan of vehicles has set forth at dusk to recover the body. The make-up of the search party could be the start of some elaborate joke, which doesn’t seem lost on the perceptibly wry Ceylan: a doctor, a prosecutor, two prisoners, a smattering of policemen and soldiers, drivers, “diggers.” Most of the officials have brought their own daily preoccupations along for the ride (no one so prominently as the short-fused police chief, played by Yilmaz Erdogan, who talks at length about buffalo yogurt, and troubles over how he will fill a prescription for his son before he returns home), and as the search drags on they also begin to worry about how late it’s getting; Ceylan contrasts these small-scale grumblings with their pursuit of a location that seems more and more mythically simple, and perhaps less and less accessible, the farther they travel out from the city. “Is it here?” they ask the chief suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), during the film’s first pullover, at a site that seems to match the initial description. He replies no, or suggests it in his unsettlingly intense, inward way. He expands on the location’s individual features (field, hillside, “round tree”) with a reluctance that suggests deliberate deception—but he has, after all, already confessed.

Ceylan’s last film, the visually arresting but considerably less successful Three Monkeys, also began with a public official’s fateful nighttime drive. Here the director effectively uses the dark of night to visualize his characters’ isolation (a signature theme), in addition to their own blind hurtling toward death. He and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki often pull back, shooting the caravan from afar, registering the loneliness of the headlights along the road—there’s no other traffic, though a passenger train, each of its cars eerily illuminated, does appear in the distance at one point. As night continues to fall, the characters begin to interpret this as something of a symbolic journey as well—eventually, even the most fatuous members of the party ruminate on time and death, as the headlights illuminate golden swaths of roadside grass. One policeman, Arab (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan), imagines their journey as a fairy tale they will one day relate from a safe distance (this observation is the source of the film’s title). The prosecutor (Taner Birsel) remarks to the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) how difficult it is to make sense of many of the cases that have come across his desk over the years—that you have to be more of an astrologer than a prosecutor to divine motives and causes—and he goes on to tell an anecdote about a woman who, five months after giving birth, died on the exact day she predicted she would, without any signs at all of ill health or self-harm.

This story turns out to become something of a parallel mystery to the murder that sets the action, beautifully lugubrious though it may be, into motion. The doctor and the prosecutor resume their discussion of it a number of times, including during a middle-of-the-night detour to a nearby village, when the face of the local mukhtar’s daughter reminds the prosecutor of the woman who predicted her own death. This pit stop marks the film’s most hypnotic and hallucinatory descent into night, as well as its closest alignment with the point of view of the shell-shocked Kenan, who, after also becoming entranced by the face of the mukhtar’s daughter, imagines his likely victim sitting in the room among them. These men, passing the night among other men, are almost uniformly haunted by the specters of women. For his part, the rather reticent doctor, to whom the movie eventually shifts its focus, is recently divorced, and later flips through a stack of photos of him and his ex-wife.

As morning comes, the hunt for the victim’s body finally comes to an end, and the prosecutor dictates his official report—which he seems to give as a screen test, taking the solemn duty as an opportunity to relate how in college he was known as “Clark,” for Clark Gable, as he looks wistfully off into the distance—before the rest of the assembled crew bumble a bit with the corpse. Upon their return, the world-weary doctor mills about before undertaking the autopsy (this event, not so much seen but certainly heard, makes up the masterful final scene), and the presence of a bereft mother and child around the hospital supports the rumors circulating that the murder was a crime of passion.

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, infidelity comes to represent the highest, most irrevocable form of betrayal, the most persuasive case for one person’s essential remoteness from another, as well as a fault line between the sexes (2006’s Climates explored similar terrain, coolly anatomizing the aftermath of a breakup). This is just one of many irreconcilable binaries in Ceylan’s films: urban/rural, parents/children, movement/stasis. His characters are more often than not caught in the middle of a protracted process of disillusionment, a long, slow loss of faith in the idea that they can form meaningful or lasting associations even with lovers or family, or that they can escape on a moment’s notice from the lives they’ve made for themselves. In one of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s most remarkable sequences, the search party has come to a stop near a creek; a policeman shakes an apple tree so he can snack on what falls from it. The camera follows an apple that drops from the tree as it rolls down a hill, into the creek bed. Borne along for a bit by the creek itself, the fruit finally comes to rest, along with several other apples, at a point where the water eddies around a few rocks.

This is, essentially, the trajectory of Ceylan’s characters: In trying to make up the distance between the life they’re living and the one they imagine they might live (whether through abrupt relocation or the taking up of a love affair, illicit or not), they fall into a rut between the banks, borne along slowly toward the final terminus. Ceylan doesn’t appear to make any exceptions: Even the filmmaker’s most direct portrait of the artist, the photographer Mahmut in the remarkable Distant (2002), the director’s most successful feature up until now, is entirely (and hilariously) unforgiving. The almost totally unproductive Mahmut pretends he’s enriching himself by rewatching Tarkovsky’s Stalker—until nobody’s looking, that is, at which point he immediately rotates the tape out for a porn movie.

Ceylan’s despairing worldview is even more expansively depicted in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Though it features characters from several walks of life thrown into collision to accomplish an arduous task, there is still a submerged playfulness to it, as well as a distinct searching quality, that keeps it from being oppressive. These days, thoroughly forlorn depictions of the human condition rarely come outfitted with such strikingly realized environments or such a seamlessly integrated sense of humor—Ceylan’s jokes don’t upset the mood by leavening it, or move the dial toward caricature, but arise naturally from the gaps in communication between the characters. With Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan has moved to a bigger canvas with truly impressive results—not only in his vivid encapsulation of an entire overcast region, but in his deployment of a deeper cast of characters. While he often confines them to a single space (a field, a guesthouse, the cabin of a compact sedan), for a single purpose, Ceylan nonetheless makes clear that these men could not be further apart.