Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

a.k.a Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da The Anatolian steppe is barren and ugly at night and much the same in the day.  Policemen, doctors, diggers and drivers converse on a range of topics as far reaching as yoghurt, urination problems and bureaucracy as they march a convicted killer around the night and day to discover where he’s buried a body that he’s only admitted to mere hours before.

Without appearing condescending, that’s the bulk of the latest film by upcoming Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Three Monkeys, Distant).  Winning the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film is based on real events experienced by one of Ceylan’s co-writers who was a doctor escorting policemen on a very similar drive to the one depicted in the film.  I have never experienced a Ceylan film before this and after reading of the success of his previous works, this is something of a landmark achievement for him (if the Grand Prix is anything to go by) and I’m incredibly excited to delve deep within his canon of works.

With that being said though, Anatolia is by no means an easy film.  Ceylan’s method of approach – which I have mixed feelings about – is of long takes and very natural conversation.  This I have no problem with but when the film is 157 minutes long, it does begin to feel flabby and the question of “Where the hell was the editor?” begins to bubble at the surface, along with however long your bladder can last for.

On the flipside of this, the film is at times incredibly mesmerising and succeeds at the very same thing it begins to falter at.  Before you rush in, let me explain – yes the performances (though they’re so low-key it feels like people you know in your own family) are excellent.  Yes, the script provides excellent material to work with.  Yes, the direction is absolutely brilliant.  But – and writing this I’m not even sure where to align myself – it drags, hard.  I wasn’t bored per se, it was just an infuriating experience to be in a theatre an hour longer than what was probably necessary.

But a great film is not always an easy film and Anatolia demands a second viewing, if you’re up for it.  There’s only a few moments that I found to be too formulaic for my liking – one cutaway involved an apple rolling down a hill and eventually resting alongside two (if I remember correctly) rotten apples, an obvious reference to an old cliché that could have been executed far more wisely.  But these are minor issues when placed alongside the larger framework of the film, the murder, and trying to answer the question of “why?”  The minimal featuring of women is also noticeable as by the conclusion, they seem to become the invisible main character whose lives the men revolve around.

The scene that stands out the most in my mind is upon a request for food they all retreat to the mayor’s cottage in the dead of the night.  It’s a very quiet, tender scene where only one conversation occurs, marked by the moment the mayor’s daughter emerges from the dark with a plate of food to feed the weary men inhibiting the tiny room.  She is incredibly beautiful and all of the men are reduced to boys, looking at her completely agape as they slowly remove the food from the tray and it’s where the film goes from being a good film to something special and worth remembering.

Although I’m not completely satisfied with the film for the reasons stated above, I am very excited at the prospect of witnessing it again and there’s not many films that bring that response out so quickly.  The characters studies are too thick to just dismiss so easily and I want to try and find an answer to the overarching why that dominates the film and I get the impression one will always come to a different conclusion, such is the nature of Anatolia.

[rating=4]

Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is released in Australia with limited distribution on 1st June.