The latest from Turkish filmmaker and international festival fave Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a police procedural in reverse: The cops have their murderer but are in search of the body. The first shot of the movie is a view through a smudgy, dirty window eventually revealing three men sitting together; one of them won't make it through the night. The crime having occurred unseen, soon a small caravan of vehicles is speeding through the nighttime countryside, stuffed clown-car style with cops, a prosecutor, a doctor and those other two men, brothers who admit to the killing but can't remember or won't say where they drunkenly buried the body.
The distorted view of that first image, in a sense, never fully clears up — the question of who these men are and what the viewer is really looking at is continually reoriented as relationships are revealed and connections between characters deepened.
As one of the killers, actor Firat Tanis brings a stoic stillness to the film's core, his tight inexpressiveness transformed by the action swirling around him, colored for the viewer by what people are saying about him.
Anatolia's title makes reference to the films of Sergio Leone, and like Leone, Ceylan uses the landscape to swallow up his characters, placing their personal dramas in relief against big, empty landscapes.
Ceylan often captures a sense of large, open vistas, with people and cars becoming just a small piece of the broader landscape, tiny figures moving within a larger diorama, with the viewer left at times to find the actors within the frame without guidance. It's genre storytelling redrawn in a vivid, tactile way.
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Ceylan creates a fully drawn sense of physical space but also a feeling of emotional and psychological spaciness, an enigmatic strangeness that hovers in the air like the rustle of wind through the trees.
In its interest in other things besides just the immediate matter at hand — such as the banal banter among the cops about the right consistency of yogurt and their wives and overtime pay, the way in which bigger issues often reveal themselves out of the smaller ones — Anatolia is something of a thematic cousin to the recent Margaret. Both films explore the way in which no matter what happens, the world moves along, life moving forward regardless of whatever tragedy or singular event might befall a person or even community.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a murder mystery more interested in big-picture existential mysteries than in the small-scale specifics of its single murder.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA | Written and directed by NURI BILGE CEYLAN | Cinema Guild | Music Hall, Playhouse