Nuri Bilge Ceylan first broke onto the world cinema scene when his short film Koza (1995) was nominated for the Best Short Film Palme d’Or at The Cannes Film Festival. Since then, he’s gone on to be nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or award four times, won the Best Director prize for Three Monkeys (2008) and the Grand Jury Prize twice – first for Uzak (2002) and then for Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The film showcases Ceylan’s ability to tap into his nation’s culture whilst also creating something sublimely beautiful that can be appreciated on a global scale.
Opening with a painterly presented wide shot of the Anatolian steppes, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia observes a painstakingly meticulous investigation into a mysterious murder. We follow a local police chief and his crew of diligent yet dim-witted assistants as they escort a pair of criminals around the seemingly endless valleys of this picturesque Turkish countryside, in search of the illusive body. They’re joined by a doctor and a prosecutor whose job it will be to examine the body once found. However, whilst Once Upon A Time In Anatolia may appear to be an archetypal crime-drama, this simple facade masks a much deeper, philosophical film…
The most notable element of Cylan’s latest endeavour has to be his trademark ability to capture the natural beauty which surrounds his narrative. Visually alluring, the film’s composition is utterly sublime – totally mesmerising and, at times, completely overpowering. Formerly a photographer, Ceylan has often been criticised for being unable to find suitable material in which to wrap his lush cinematography around; however, it’s these hypnotic and often breathtaking shots that totally immerse us into Ceylan’s world, creating a realistic sense of tension and slowly building the emotionally effective connections which bind us to his thoroughly complex cast of characters.
Whilst Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is commendable for its technical prowess, within these sumptuously framed shots lays a subtly brilliant script – a gentle mix of profound philosophical ideas and infectiously enjoyable comedy. Amongst the film’s languid pace lies a collection of off-hand remarks and broken conversations which cover the gamut of human existence – from marriage, death and divorce to some genuinely laugh-out-loud discussions about prostates, smoking and Clark Gable. Indeed, it’s this ability to depict how humour can be found during even the darkest moments which makes Once Upon A Time In Anatolia such a thoroughly intriguing and enjoyable study of human behaviour.
Undeniably, there will be some who struggle with Once Upon A Time In Anatolia’s lengthy runtime and relaxed pace; however, to truly immerse yourself into these frustrated characters’ quest, this delicate approach is required to amplify the onscreen emotions and, in turn, draw the audience into this painstaking, yet beautifully observed investigation. This extended runtime also allows Ceylan to portray the individual roles of his multifaceted cast. His incredibly varied mixture of characters acts as an allegory for the varying social economic groups which comprise Turkish society. Whilst their often whimsical dialogue may digress from the plot, each snippet enlightens us on the current state of Turkey and its diverse population – a delightful microcosm of society working in unison with each other.
One of the most fascinating elements of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is how the theme of hiding the truth and the motives we invent to justify our ‘little white lies’ subtly connects Ceylan’s cast. Each of the central characters has a truth their hiding, and each of them has their own reasons for doing so. The doctor hides his secret to protect the memory of a loved one, the prosecutor out of denial, and the film’s rugged criminal out of shame. It’s the one facet which links these incredibly different men – and the one element that ultimately unites them, making for a fascinating character study of the fragility of human emotions, regardless of class or social stature.
Completely open to interpretation, this expansive meditation on human frailty is a beautifully presented piece of social commentary which belies its crime genre synopsis. Never asking questions of its character’s motives, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a deeply involving, meticulously fashioned and fascinating film – and perhaps Ceylan’s greatest work to date