Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011) last year provided animated discussion at the post-premiere supper at Fremantle’s Capri restaurant but this paled beside the robust debate and theorising in a small bar attached to Luna Leederville as members present discussed Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011).

Rarely has such discourse been so crammed into such a small time frame as we each had but one beverage and tried to dissect the 150-odd minutes we had just witnessed.

‘Odd’ is probably a good word to start with Anatolia. Films that dwell on faces for a long time just don’t seem to cut it in the modern, take away society where if your thrills don’t come in seconds and even hundredths of seconds you’re regarded as boring. However, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan dispenses with the modern world. He is recording life as it is on the Anatolian steppe – Turkey within reach of Iran and Armenia.

Ceylan has crafted a long, long film that kept the imagination and wonder alive for most of its running time.  It was visually beautiful because most of the action takes place at night and man-made light is an important component of the action. When daylight arrives, the beauty you had been watching has switched to desolation and ugliness – the way it really is.

After seeing three men (the eventual victim and two brothers, one or both of whom eventually murder him) having a drink in what turns out to be a garage, the credits roll and a journey begins at dusk to find where the victim is buried, the killer having apparently confessed. The journey, at first thought to be a quick affair by its participants, turns into an all-night process and the story unfolds slowly and deliberately while side plots emerge involving other players.

A long shot shows a rural road at night and headlights appear over the horizon, then three vehicles drive slowly into the foreground. We are not introduced to the characters but gradually learn their place in this cavalcade.

A brilliant scene then follows with five men talking in a moving car. The police chief, a doctor, the accused, a driver and another subordinate policeman. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian offered that four of the passengers are illuminated but the accused sits in the middle of the back seat in relative darkness. The camera holds this shot of the prisoner in the shadows and then slowly gets closer to illustrate “how disturbing his silent presence is.”

Theories not recorded in other reviews abounded at our discussion and rather than explain the plot, it may be better to proffer some of these.

All of the characters searching for the body are men. Apart from the quintet described, two other vehicles contain a prosecutor and his scribe; an army sergeant and soldiers; a driver; two diggers and the accused’s brother, who is also being held.

ACCUSER & ACCUSED IN ANATOLIA

Prue Chaffey proffered that despite being largely invisible in Anatolia, women were seen as powerful influences. They appear only in the form of the police chief’s unseen wife, who sounds bossy at the other end of the mobile phone; the prosecutor’s ‘wife of a friend’ who predicted her own death and died when she said you would, not long after giving birth to their baby; the beautiful daughter of a small village’s mayor; and the murder victim’s wife, who is also attractive, seen with her son when the body is returned to the main centre.

Despite Western notions of how Middle Eastern women are treated, it appears the women in this story have strong power – the first obvious from the police chief’s manner while speaking to his wife; the pregnant woman who died showed her control by dying just when she predicted (later revealed as revenge on her husband); the young woman is almost Madonna-like as she serves coffee while lit below from a lamp on her service tray and causes serious reactions among the men, including the accused; and the victim’s wife is possibly the former lover of the accused, having taken revenge against her husband, branded as a rat by one of the drivers.

However, this isn’t the only theme. The doctor, who carries many of the long slow shots early in the film, becomes more important and his actions at the autopsy show compassion within the harsh surroundings. Is he covering evidence to save the torment of the victim’s widow or has he formed a notion that the accused is not the bad man he is painted? Is the accused even the murderer or is it his slightly simple brother, who doesn’t say much but is quickly silenced by his brother when he admits the murder after the body is finally discovered?

Some background atmosphere in Anatolia prompted a lot of thinking. For example, as Greg Jude pointed out, one of the drivers picked up three orange melons near the dead body and later, as the doctor ruminates on what action he will take during the autopsy, he is watching the murder victim’s wife return her son to school while children play in various groups with three orange soccer balls.

On reflection, did the melons represent life where death had occurred juxtaposed against the soccer balls being inanimate objects where new life (the school kids) is happening? This argument could be strengthened by one of the soccer balls being kicked out of the grounds and collected by the victim’s son, who boots it strongly back into the schoolyard.

The more thought you put into Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the more you can draw from it. It is beautifully photographed and some of the ‘waiting’ scenes have majestic night shots of weather impacting on the players.

The acting is wonderful and I particularly liked the vain prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel). While dictating the murder to his scribe, he says the victim has a moustache like Clark Gable. Out of shot, one of the crew says that the prosecutor looks like Clark Gable and he tells them at university he used to be called Clark Nusret. The prosecutor then bursts into laughter, joined by the others. The scene came from left field but beautifully broke the horror of the moment so the black humour could continue without too much diversion.

Muhammet Uzuner (Doctor Cemal), Yilmaz Erdogan (Commissioner Naci) and Firat Tanis (Kenan, the accused) are all good too, well supported by some character players who were very believable. 

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a wonderful film – absorbing but not for the impatient.

ADDENDUM:  Is anyone able to explain the apple, once shaken from the tree, rolling down the hill and into the stream and flowing further?

Score: 4.5

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