|Posted by Nicole O'Driscoll on April 2, 2012 at 12:30 PM|
It’s not often that I leave the cinema feeling a tad nonplussed, but clap clap to Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for ending my Saturday evening in exactly that state. I’m not going to give a point-by-point account of the plot … the film is virtually shot in real time (if not slowed down real time), so you’ll have plenty of time to sit and absorb it. No need to worry about missing a thing, unless you fall asleep. Because how and why can a film be so compelling but soporific at the same time? And is this genius or failure on Ceylan’s part?
Let me just lay out a stream of consciousness summary:
two murder suspects
a convey of police, Prosecutor, doctor, army general, and forensics dogsbodies accompanying said murder suspects in …
two bulging cars and an army jeep
on a tedious search to recover the body …
under a moonless night sky.
At odds with the banal conversations going on in the police cars, the backdrop scenery is mystifying – sulky mountain ridges and a pitch black sky that hangs so low it could well have been stitched to the horizon by the costume department. The film celebrates the union of the night with nature while the men involved in the search – all unkempt with dark circles under their eyes – despise their night-shift. The atmosphere in the car bristles with forced camaraderie over an edgy undercurrent, badly disguised with conversations about yoghurt and other banalities.
Each time the convoy stops to search a new area, more is revealed to us about some of the individual characters – their fears and inadequacies that are borne out of snippets of their past. Everyone is in some way touched by their own experience of death and loss or divorce, and the atmosphere that surrounds the grey areas of human agency doesn’t relent.
The doctor lights a cigarette for the primary suspect and is ordered to put it out. Bureaucracy is followed to the letter by the army general, and in a different way by the police and other officials where it accords with their own agendas. Yet in spite of this, bureaucracy is also exposed time and time again as a shambolic system. The team mock their own efforts to join the EU, while the forensics assistants forget to bring a bodybag. The corpse, now in rigour mortis, is manhandled into the boot of one of the cars. Meanwhile, back at the (inadequate) morgue, his wife is made to sit outside while the pathologist performs the autopsy.
For Dr Cemal, on whose ponderous face the camera pans for uncomfortably long periods, human values take precedence over bureaucracy. That grey area between the dark and light forces in life should be interrogated before the official interrogations and judgements take place, and should be upheld in spite of them. A world-weary divorcee, he accepts his own lot in life dispassionately but ruminates on everything else with a kind of venerable gravitas that is entirely out of place with the detached perspectives of the rest of the cast.
The doctor is the most ambiguous character of the film for more reasons than just being a man of few words. I was left with the impression that Ceylon cast him as a displaced, disappointed oracle, wasted as the interpreter of a wider human context. His role pulls the film together in what he does not say or do. If you want to know the answers to the questions that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will inevitably leave you asking, they are planted in Ceylon’s extravagant use of close-ups on the doctor’s face, challenging the audience to watch the very act of thinking – the right kind of thinking?