Film: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

by Echo Xie

When a movie gets a nearly perfect critics score and an only so-so audience rating, you know what you’re about to walk into. Most possibly, it will either bore you, or confuse you. In this case, it is little of both.

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (released in the U.S. in January this year, and last fall in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe) begins at a seemingly random and brief scene where three men are chatting and drinking at night. Then after the opening credits, the next hour feels more like a road movie. In nearly complete darkness, three vehicles are moving into sight from far beyond the hills. When the cars stop, several people step out, take a look around and then go back to the cars to continue their journey. As the story slowly progresses, we are told that in the cars are a police commissioner, a prosecutor, a doctor, a secretary, two “diggers,” several military officers and two murder suspects, and they are searching for a victim’s body buried somewhere on the vast Anatolian steppe. In the process of the endless driving-stoping-searching, those characters gradually come to life. They all have a past they are trying so hard to bury but somehow they keep digging it up.

The director, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is dedicated to art-house cinema. His films are regularly screened and receive awards at various international festivals, among which, his latest featured film Three Monkeys (Turkish: Üç Maymun) brought him a Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was the co-winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2011. Ceylan started out his career as a photographer and kept that interest at heart even after he became a filmmaker.  His project Turkey Cinemascope depicts the Turkish landscape using panoramic photography.

Naturally, Ceylan’s photographic aesthetics are reflected in his films. Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is such a cinematographic treat. The scenes with vehicles moving in the night landscape are so beautifully shot — the headlights shine through the dusty road and light up the night like a chain of fire.

My only complaint is, for a story like this, 150 minutes of running time seems too long, and it gets really slow and quiet at times. Nothing is really happening in the first half of the film, and the story is mostly led by conversations (which for us means reading a lot of subtitles). The film only gives subtle suggestions to what’s going on but never confirms any theory you might have. The stunning cinematography does make up for the pace to some extent, but as a common audience who has no context to the Turkish language and culture, the film inevitably gets boring and confusing from time to time. After its very abrupt ending, the man sitting next to me turned around and asked, “does it ever say why the man was killed? I was late and didn’t catch the beginning.” I answered, “No, it never gave that answer. And you really didn’t miss much.”

But with all that being said, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is still a worthwhile theatre experience. Under the boring crime investigation, it carries a rich and extensive character study that reveals the deep and sometimes invisible human emotions. It shows the horrible things we are capable of doing, but it also shows the mistakes we made are often entangled with our compassion and love. And then comes the lifelong struggle trying to justify our wrong doings and release ourselves from the past.

It’s one of those movies when you’re watching you feel enjoyable and torturesome at the same time. But really the more you think about it, the more you are drawn to it.

Words of advice: drink some coffee and make your visit to the restroom before the curtain rises.

(The film poster is used here for promotional purposes following fair use and fair comment guidelines; the poster is from the film’s distributor The Cinema Guild.  To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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