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Saturday, May 6, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan, Firat Tanis
Country: Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina

There aren’t many ways for a crime procedural to truly surprise the audience. The beats are all so familiar - the crime, the investigator or investigative team moving from one lead to the next and working against the clock to catch the bad guy, who is always one step ahead, until coming to the final showdown where the criminal is either brought to justice or killed in the attempt – and the genre is so well-worn that a filmmaker has to really upend conventions in order to deliver a crime movie that does more than quench the audience’s thirst for the familiar. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does that by approaching the procedural in a slow (slow - like, 157 minutes slow) and methodical way that makes the story less about the crime than about the effect of gathering evidence on those tasked with doing it over the course of a very long night. Sight unseen, the length and pace of the film might make it sound like a daunting viewing experience, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a completely absorbing movie right from the start, and a richly rewarding one by the time you reach the end.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia opens from a distance, watching as a convoy of cars winds its way through the deserted roads, the headlights looking almost like streaks of fire illuminating the dark (the film’s cinematographer is Gokhan Tiryaki and his work here is brilliant). When the cars finally come to a stop, the various players emerge onto the stage: Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), the police inspector, Izzet (Murat Kilic) and Onder (Emre Sen), two officers under his command, and their driver, Arap Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan); Mr. Nusret (Taner Birsel), the prosecutor, Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), a doctor, and Kenan (Firat Tanis) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz), the two suspects. The crime – the murder of a man named Yasar – is already solved and the two suspects, who are brothers, have already confessed. The purpose of the excursion is for them to take the authorities to where they’ve buried the body so that it can be retrieved, examined for evidence, and then finally turned over to Yasar’s family for burial.

The night that unfolds will prove to be a long one. The suspects are confused about where they’ve buried the body, one having been drunk when it all happened, the other unsure of what’s going on due to his cognitive difficulties. The whole group of them stop in one place then eventually move to another, looking for a vaguely remembered and described landmark. As the night wears on, the men will grow frustrated and tired, the search becoming increasingly difficult as the darkness becomes thicker, and the players begin talking amongst themselves, telling each other stories about the unusual things they’ve seen in their lives and lines of work. When day breaks, the revelations of the night before, including Kenan’s account of why the crime was committed in the first place, hang over the searchers and the recovery of the body, rather than bringing the case to a true close, instead results in a host of new questions coming to the surface.

Pretty much nothing about Once Upon a Time in Anatolia conforms to what we’ve been trained to think a movie narrative should be. The story is rooted in a crime, but not only is the crime solved before the film even begins, we don’t even learn that much about it during the course of the film: we learn where the body is buried and the motive, but the details of it remain vague and the crime itself is part of the narrative’s background as the film’s focus shifts outward to the men involved in the search and what their casual, seemingly immaterial conversations reveal about them. Some of these discussions are “of the moment” and amount to nothing more than time killing banter between characters, while other conversations resonate and end up being revisited, used by the film to fold back the different layers of the characters’ personalities.

Ceylan is rigorous in the way that he explores the minutia of human interaction and over the course of the film you’re so deeply sunk into the characters’ psyches that by the end everything on screen takes on a richness of purpose and meaning. Ceylan achieves this not only through the dialogue, but in the way that he shifts among the characters as if testing the potential for several of them to be the film’s protagonist, and in the way that he frames the characters in any given scene, leveraging the characters against the space (or lack thereof) in the shot. One of the best examples is a scene which takes place in Ali’s car, where everyone is packed into the too-small space and the eye is drawn to Kenan, who is made to look so small compared to the other men. He’s at the center of the image, and yet he’s such a minor part of it, just as he’s central to the crime but the crime is ultimately such a small part of the story. The effect is that rather than looking at the issue directly, as most films would, Ceylan instead skews the focus ever so slightly to the side in order to look at everything around the crime, offering an entirely different perspective to the procedural story. The result is a spellbinding film that grabs you precisely because you don’t anticipate what it’s about to do. Once Upon a Time is a film in a class of its own, a masterpiece of patient, character-based storytelling.

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