Active Ingredients: Colors, lighting and photography; Humor and pathos
Side Effects: Change in tone and scope in the third act
A barren field lit only by the last gasps of dusk and the bouncing beams of approaching headlights. It’s nameless terrain, devoid of distinguishing characteristics, too much like all the other fields spotting the countryside. These empty locations are the setting for much of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s quietly effecting Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and for the search for a buried corpse at the film’s center. From the beginning, it seems like a fool’s errand; the ragtag collection of policemen, a prosecutor and a doctor feebly follow a pair of confessed killers in search of the body. Unfortunately, their memory is hazy. The victim might have been buried in an area with a round tree. Perhaps the field sloped slightly. It could be this one or it could be miles away.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a curious sort of anti-mystery, a long, slow search for meaning somewhere, anywhere. The measured pace and reserved style, however, suits the film perfectly, and along the way Ceylan finds compelling existential drama, if not exactly the true meaning behind it all. As the film progresses, the style begins to pay off beautifully and the web of characters that Ceylan and his cowriters Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal have painstakingly crafted slowly, almost imperceptibly, allow us entry into the case and into each player’s private lives, fears and regrets. It’s interesting whom we find ourselves with as each scene fades into the next, one moment with the doctor, broken and alone, the next with the killer who hides more than his stoic exterior betrays. Ceylan forces us into intimacy with each man, patiently observing them thinking, staring or letting their eyes wander to some small detail in the landscape. Ultimately, it’s these very quiet, almost banal moments that make up who these men are, that comprise their whole existence. And it’s this case that brings them together to experience what happened once upon a time in Anatolia.
[Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is out now in limited release and also played at the Boston Turkish Film Festival, which continues through April 8th.]