Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
While interrogating Kenan (Firat Tanis), the cops learn that a corpse is buried somewhere in the countryside. The search is led by the chief of police, Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), but it proves far more complicated than pointing at a freshly dug dirt. It turns out that Kenan claims he was drunk during the murder and does not remember the exact location although he can recall certain details like a nearby fountain and a round tree. As the long night unfolds, Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) grow increasingly weary.
“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, might be criticized for being boring and it will be justified. It takes its time to set up what the story is about which does not entirely have to do with the dead body in question. There is much small talk during the long drives in the car, out in the fields while waiting for confirmation that they have found the right spot, and wide shots of three vehicles slithering up and down the grassy hills like three balls of sun coruscating in the thickness of night.
The picture can be categorized as almost flat on the surface, but as the characters get accustomed to each other’s presence, the conversations turn prolific, lively, and more insightful. It becomes apparent that the story is mostly told through the images painted in our minds. The tired- and sad-looking people we see on screen constantly recall their own experiences or a certain something that someone has told them. For example, the mayor of a small village during a short stopover informs the search party of the effects of emigration has had in his community: young people leaving and older folks being left behind. People are so old, they eventually die and no one is strong enough to dig graves so the bodies are laid out to rot in the open. Another story involves Prosecutor Nusret talking about a pregnant woman who claimed she was going to die several days after giving birth and how it came true. As a pragmatist, this fascinates Doctor Cemal.
The mood is plaintive and has a darkness about it but it is far from overbearing. On the contrary, its lethargic tempo is sandwiched with beautiful imagery like leaves manically dancing in the wind while the duo caught in its storm look at a distance and await for news. There is an outstanding sequence involving an apple falling out of a tree and rolling along a loamy soil and onto a stream of water. Because the camera has never been so alive with its movement, we come to expect a revelation once the apple comes to a halt. Whether it does or does not is for me to know but perfectly does it tie into the thesis of the film.
Written by Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Ercan Kesal, “Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da” dares us to exercise our imaginations, question the moral and ethical responsibilities we are willing to abide by and transgress, and consider how it might be like to engage ourselves in someone else’s mindset given that the person has defined much of his life with his occupation. More a cerebral experience than that of the senses, the film transports us in a specific experience of the Turkish culture.