Having watched Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep a couple of weeks ago I felt the need to see Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the well-regarded non-conformist crime drama the director made a few years earlier. Both films are set in the same mountainous region of Anatolia and both are shot by Ceylan’s regular cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, who certainly has a flair for photographing the desolate, largely-bare landscape. Yet where Winter Sleep seemed to draw back from the region’s inclement weather by ‘hibernating’ with its main characters inside a cliff-top hotel, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is for the most part set outdoors, and follows a group of people moving necessarily from one indistinguishable spot to another during a long, cold night. This group – made up of a few police officers and gendarmerie forces, a couple of gravediggers, a doctor (played by Muhammet Uzuner), a prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and two suspects in custody (Fırat Tanış, Burhan Yıldız) – is searching for a murder victim, who we briefly glimpse enjoying a drink with the two accused men in the film’s short prologue. Chief suspect Kenan (Tanış) is supposedly leading the police to the spot where he left the body, presumably as part of a plea bargain or a legal equivalent, but because so much of the vast landscape looks the same he becomes confused, a problem exacerbated by the fact he says he was drunk when he dumped the corpse; his brother, who was with him at the time, appears to have learning difficulties and the increasingly-exacerbated police officers direct few of their questions his way.
Much of the running time is concerned with the group’s journey to a variety of spots during the night, and the discussions that take place when they arrive at their destinations. The search is a primary concern of Ceylan’s, but while it seems as if little of note is actually happening the exact opposite is the case: a series of long conversations – the director is fond of scenes that can last for up to 10 or 15 minutes apiece, a construct that distances his films from the mainstream and is designed to attract patient viewers – take place between characters, principally involving Uzuner’s doctor, and gradually their personalities and their relationships are either clearly established or enigmatically built up, leaving the viewer with a general idea of what these men think of one another while also leaving some unanswered questions. In these scenes the doctor and Birsel’s prosecutor engage in lengthy dialogue about a separate issue regarding a woman’s heart attack, while Kenan eventually reveals what happened during the night of the murder, the brief (and understated) revelation raising the possibility that he came forward to the police and gave himself up. The group stops for food and shelter at the house of a local mayor, and several characters become briefly entranced by the mayor’s daughter, before the search continues the next morning; eventually the action (for want of a better term) moves from the open land to the town of Keskin.
Rather unusually this is a crime drama that avoids all the obvious elements of a crime drama; i.e. we don’t see the murder in question occur, or the subsequent early stages of the police investigation, or the suspects being arrested, or their trial. Instead Ceylan picks out the less interesting, more mundane aspects of police procedure: the hours spent waiting or driving around searching for crucial evidence; the satisfaction of legal procedure, embodied by the prosecutor, who gives dictates at length to an official recorder; and the autopsy of the body, a task that is usually unseen in films, most of which tend to spin on to the moment that a detective arrives at a morgue and conveniently receives key information that moves the plot forward (whereas here some vaugely revelatory information is quickly buried). The idea of watching a film that closely resembles the reality of a murder investigation, rather than the usual depiction of a sensationalised, stripped down adventure, is probably anathema to a lot of people, and I guess the idea of searching for the devil among the details for 150 minutes is too. Additionally the thought of sitting through an extremely slow, brooding piece that revels in long conversations that highlight the monotony of life will probably put even more off, but personally I have been very impressed by what I’ve seen of Ceylan’s films; the combination of pace and length is something I find a challenge, but it doesn’t put me off, and I’d rather be challenged by the films I watch than not. I’m most impressed by the way they look: each featuring alluring combinations of beautifully-lit, warm-looking interiors and distant shots of figures moving across spectacular vistas or traversing town streets. The acting across both films I’ve watched has been uniformly excellent, and the writing has thrown up a number of well-drawn, interesting characters as well. The Sergio Leone-referencing title seems like an odd choice, though, unless it was deliberately chosen to entice an international audience; I guess the landscape of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is similar to that of Once Upon A Time In The West, but if there’s another link I’m afraid it has gone over my head.
Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Written by: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ercan Kesal.
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Taner Birsel, Fırat Tanış.
Cinematography: Gökhan Tiryaki.
Editing: Bora Gökşingöl, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Running Time: 150 minutes.