Once upon a time, out in the sticks outside of Istanbul, a man with a wife and child waiting for him at home, was murdered. The killer has confessed and all that is left to do in order to clear up the legal case is the find the body over the course of a night. This is, essentially, the premise for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Turkey’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film award category for the 2012 Academy Awards.
Although the premise sounds straight forward, the execution is far less than simple. The audience are thrown into the fray without any explanation of what the fray actually is. What are they looking for? Is it a body? Who’s the victim? How were the criminals found? If the killers are unsure of where the body is, how can we be sure they did it? The story consistently adds more questions as others are answered. This is because the film is not a traditional story. It doesn’t attempt to fit to the normal formulas of ‘Beginning, middle and end’ or ‘Equilibrium, disequilibrium, re equilibrium’. There is room for debate as to whether it does, or doesn’t conform to these recognised formulas, but it is clear that the film is part of a bigger picture. There is definitely an exposition, even if it isn’t spelled out and there are enough questions left unanswered at the end to make it clear that the story will continue after the credits. It is more of an event that is being filmed than a narrative, which not only sets it apart from other murder investigation films, but also makes it seem more real - like life. It is also worth noting that a reason that the ambiguity of exposition and details feels real is because it is. The story is based on real events that one of the co-writers went through while training to be a doctor. He was unable to remember all the facts from the long night, but he remembered the atmosphere well, and this was translated to the screen very clearly.
Anatolia (or just outside as most of the film takes place a fair distance from the municipal limits) is a small rural area. The characters aren’t like the investigators we may be used to from other police investigation dramas where people have been desensitised to the idea of death. They all seem like people who lead simpler lives. It is unclear if there is a single leading character, or if they are all a collectively important ensemble. Three vehicles full of people on both side of the law trawl through the hillside with the same objective. However, as the prosecutor notes: the butcher’s only concern is the meat, the lamb’s only concern is the knife. Each character, although having the same collective objective of looking for the dead body has their own personal objectives and concerns and their own assigned roles within the group. The prosecutor notes this of the Army Sergeant accompanying the search party without realising that each member fits into this thought, especially himself. He is so wrapped up in his own life and pretensions, that he gives little regard for those around him, or doing his job properly. The pretensions of the prosecutor are communicated beautifully through conversations dotted throughout the film with the doctor. The script consistently provides deep and interesting conversations, but it is also the master of the opposite: banal and sometimes idiotic discussions. There are constantly conversations that don’t drive the plot anywhere, but help round out the characters and make the audience realise, that for most of the characters, they are just killing time. While the deeper aspects of the script are well written, well performed and definitely thought provoking, it is these lesser important, mundane, every day thoughts, quips and jokes that bring the film to life.
As night turns to day, the cold grey dawn sheds light on more than just the beautiful Turkish countryside that has been shrouded by the pitch-black night; it sheds light on the narrative and questions surrounding it. It becomes apparent that the protagonist is the doctor, and it is no longer about the ensemble. The daylight also allows the plot to drive forward once more after exhaustion and quick tempers had necessitated a break.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not an easy film to summarise. It’s not quite an investigation, as the audience aren’t supplied with enough facts. It’s not quite a murder-mystery because we know who did it from the start. It’s not quite an insight into rural Turkish life, as it’s only a single, isolated event. It’s not quite a road-movie, because despite most of the film being on the road, they’re not going anywhere.
Despite the struggle to label the film, it is a great success. The slow pace allows the thoughts provoked to simmer and remain with the audience allowing them to debate it for longer, this is important as the film, in fact, seems to get better the more the audience think about it. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film’s director stated in an interview with timeout:
“The films that bored me the most in the past became my favourite movies later on, so I don’t care about boring the audience. Sometimes, I really want to bore them because out of boredom might come a miracle, maybe days later, maybe years, when they see the film again.”
- Nuri Bilge Ceylan
It hasn’t taken years, but mere days for the lengthy, drawn out Turkish film, which admittedly, didn’t bore, to increase in reputation in my mind. The realism, it is also worth noting, doesn’t rule out the chance for dreams or epiphanies which appear a few times and give the audience more to dwell on outside of the search. The film combines an interesting story with a great script and beautiful landscape. It combines true events with a style of realism and is a masterpiece well worth the 158 minutes it takes to watch this film.
Written by Edward L. Corrigan on 19/03/2012