Once upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest clearly distinguishes him as one of the masters of contemporary cinema. Having only seen two of his previous films, I wasn’t ready to acknowledge his apparent genius. Distant was a major art-house hit, winning countless awards (not least two nods at Cannes), it clearly placed him on the map and the critics the world over swooned over the cold harsh relationships with a wintry Istanbul backdrop. I couldn’t quite understand the almost-universal acclaim - sure, it was very well done (something the Turkish cinema lacks, unfortunately) and it had superb performances. But it was interminably dire. The second film Ceylan film I watched was Three Monkeys about a politician’s driver who assumes responsibility for his boss’s crime and goes to prison in exchange for his family to be looked after when he was gone. It was tight, tense and terrific (yes, 3 t’s).

Then I got to thinking: which one of these is a fluke? I have yet to see Climates (another critical darling), but I wasn’t ready to make up my mind about him.

Then I saw Once upon a Time in Anatolia. I can now safely say that Ceylan is every bit a filmmaking genius as he is though to be, because Once upon a Time in Anatolia (which was first shown at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) is not only the best film of the year so far, but it is also one of the best films to ever come out of Turkey. Perhaps even the best.

The ‘plot’, for want of a better word, revolves around a group of men looking for a dead body in a rainy night in the central Anatolian steppes. There is a the police captain, the doctor, the prosecutor, the accused, and several other hangers-on. Far from being a police procedural (we already know the killer and at no point the reasons behind the crime becomes a concern), it becomes an existential nightmare. A film that asks several questions and answers different ones. What you are left with are more questions, but mostly nothing to do with the film.

As the killer fails to recognise the location where he and his brother (who is also part of this caravan) buried the victim, the films strikes a very well-balanced humourous tone (admittedly, most of this humour will be lost in translation). There are long monologues that become voice-overs halfway through and turn back to the reality of the film. This metaphysical element is carried throughout and it never becomes clear when we’re in the film and when we’re looking at it from the outside. The characters are also in this same journey as their perception of what is going on around them is terminally blurred.

As the ‘secret’ is revealed (truly, there are too many), they are merely brushed away - this is not about the ‘who’, ‘how’, or ‘why’, but about the ‘what’. As the characters (and us, the audience) are woken from a delirious dream with the appearance of a young beautiful girl, the narrative picks up a pace, but we don’t see this on screen. Think of the ending of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and extend that to about an hour and a half. Not an easy viewing, yes, but incredible rewarding.

When the credits rolled after two and a half hours, I was left dumbfounded, unable to grasp what I just saw. So, I watched it again and my reaction was the same, albeit for very different reasons. Things that I picked up were different, but the inexplicable feelings they conjured up in me were the same.

If you are going to watch one film this year, make sure it’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia. In all likelihood you won’t be entertained, but you won’t be disappointed either. And I am happy to admit that I am on the Ceylan bandwagon now.