Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This existential mystery is a Turkish film, beautifully directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, full of long shots, penetrating silence, dark velvet landscapes at night, and sad truths.

Following a brief prelude which depicts three drinking buddies, one of whom will become the victim, the murder mystery unfolds as from a far distance at night we see three sets of headlights weaving around the turns of an empty road. In the distance figures get out, wander around the landscape, and return to the cars. Cut to the interior of one of the cars and we discover the the vehicles contain a police chief, a prosecutor, a doctor, a driver and two suspects, one of whom has already signed a confession, both of whom were too drunk at the time of the murder to remember exactly where they buried the body.

There is a a morose central interlude during which a local mayor is awakened and offers the group tea and food and bewails the state of his village. He cannot raise money for a new morgue. The old people die. The young all leave, only to return to view the body of their dead relative who lies moldering for want of a new morgue.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Following this interlude, the last third of the film continues in daylight with the with the discovery of the body, the gruesome details surrounding it and the return to the town and the autopsy.

There is a parallel seemingly inconsequential story about a woman who predicted the day of her death and died on schedule. This story starts as a fragment of conversation but it slowly worms its way to the surface of the film and at the end provides the denouement.

The central theme of the film is not the murder mystery but is rather a study of ordinary people and their relationships to each other and to their environment. The character portrayals are uniformly excellent, especially Taner Birsel (the Prosecutor), Yilmaz Erdogan (Police Chief Naci), Ercan Kesal (the Mayor), Firat Tanis (Kenan, the confessed killer). We slowly get to know all of them as the multiple layers of their inner lives are slowly unfolded, especially that of Doctor Cemal (Muhmmet Uzner) who at first seems out of place in these surroundings but by the end proves to be the most complex and sympathetic of all the characters.

Special mention must be made also of the cinamatogrphy of Gökhan Tiryaki for his beautifully composed landscapes at night and striking urbanscapes by day. No single credit is given for the notable soundtrack which consists largely of environmental sounds, fragments of conversation, and important silence.

Yet, finally, for all its strengths and beauty, there is a curious flatness to the film. A sort of Coen brothers-like obliqueness as though the film is off kilter. The film is so understated, so unprepossessing that while we may appreciate and admire the film, it lacks passion so that it is difficult to fall in love with it.