The Slow Burn of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Taking place over one long 24-hour period, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, tells the story of a police unit driving endlessly through the monotonous grandeur of the Anatolian steppe, looking for the dumping-ground of a murdered man. The headlights cut a beam through the black, revealing the vast surroundings. They carry the convicted murder with them, and it is he who is supposed to bring them to the spot. But everything looks the same out there, and it’s not even clear what “jurisdiction” certain areas are in, which causes much discussion between the cops, the Prosecutor, and the Army detail attached to the motorcade.

Borders are meaningless in such a landscape. They always have been in Anatolia, which has been a superhighway for centuries, millennia even, for various armies, rampaging hordes, and peoples on the move. It’s a giant land-mass that connects Asia to Europe. Here, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it is most definitely the main character in the film. There is something unknowable about such a landscape. It has seen much but it’s not telling its secrets. The policemen stare out into the waving grass, lit up by the headlights of their cars, searching for anything that might seem “off”, anything that might give a clue to where the murdered man lies. The waving grass and waving trees are almost confrontational in this context. They appear to be a living breathing entity, filled with withholding.

The pace of the film is slow. I do not say that as a criticism. I say that as an accurate assessment. I would also say that that is an accurate representation of the monotony of most police work. Police procedurals in film are often gripping thrillers, marked by A-ha moments, a crescendo of tension, and an explosive finish. But I imagine most policemen spend their days driving around, doing boring investigations, filing paperwork, and trying to get justice served to those who need it. The payoffs are few, the pace deadening. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does not shy away from that.

We get to know the characters. There’s the hot-head Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) who is in charge of the search, and irritated that they can’t find the dumping ground. It makes him look bad in front of the Prosecutor (the magnificent Taner Birsel). Naci fields hectoring phone calls from his wife, which embarrasses him, because he has to talk to her in front of his colleagues. He also needs a prescription filled, which he keeps mentioning to “the Doctor” (Muhammet Uzuner), the pathologist along for the ride for once they find the body. There is “Arab”, the cop at the wheel (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), who is a sounding-board for Naci, but has a deep well of something else going on, revealed in a giant closeup that shows tears coming to his eyes. There’s a soldier who clearly knows the area better than the rest, and answers questions about the borders (cutting through the middle of giant anonymous fields), but on some level you get the sense that in the hierarchy of the group, he’s seen as just a “grunt”, somewhat annoying because he doesn’t “know his place”. Another cop is married to a woman from a local village where they stop off to have a meal in the middle of the night. He appears to have feelings of shame about this and dislikes being teased about his wife.

Every man in the entourage brings his entire life experience to the search, and that experience is rarely expressed, but is there in the wind-filled eerie silence of the steppes. They all seem to be in communication with the landscape. It infuriates them, beckons them.

Firat Tanis plays the suspect, Kenan. Kenan is in handcuffs, in the back of the cop car, listening to the men banter about prosaic matters of the civilized world. He is a deeply shaken man. He seems to have emerged from Dante’s circle of hell. He has seen things that cannot be unseen. The film opens with a shot of Kenan, his sidekick, and the man who will eventually be murdered, laughing and drinking at a roadside garage. We don’t know what went down, what happened to change the laughing camaraderie into something catastrophic. Kenan has a sidekick, a blubbering fool who blurts out at one point that he was the one who did the killing. But Kenan is obviously the main suspect. There is a mystery here, one that will slowly unfold over the course of the film.

Mentioned in almost a throwaway (the camera isn’t even on the men conversing, but instead following the path of an apple bouncing down the slopes into a rushing stream), is the anxiety that this particular investigation is being watched by higher-ups and might inhibit entrance into the EU. Turkey’s status with the EU has been an ongoing controversy for decades. They made an official bid for membership in 1999, and negotiations and investigations have been ongoing ever since. It’s a complex issue, naturally, and in that one throwaway line (“This is the kind of stuff that will keep us from getting into the EU”), it is clear how the “EU thing” has seeped down into the national psyche. Even in a routine murder investigation, the progress of the entire nation appears to ride on how it all is handled. It’s on people’s minds.

Torture of the suspect is forbidden, according to the byzantine EU bylaws, and yet Naci can’t help himself, he wants to beat the truth out of Kenan (who is already bruised and battered from the beginning stages of the investigation).

Anatolia is a wild west environment, although less populated and wilder than the American wild west. Villages huddle in the crevices of hills, and the landscape feels post-apocalyptic and emptied out. Europe is crowded and urban comparatively. The investigators do their jobs, but there is the added anxiety of history pressing in on them, the history seeped into the ground of the steppe, a history of conquest, war, and endless parades of nations and peoples. Some lands are not meant to have borders. The petty bureaucracy of police procedure is a sign of modern life, of course, but what can it mean or signify when placed side by side with the history of magnificent Anatolia? Can it make a difference? And what difference, exactly? Once Upon a Time in Anatolia barely mentions these issues, and the one comment about the EU is what launched my own thoughts about it. It’s unbalancing, to be given so much time during a movie to think.

Slowly, almost by stealth, two characters step out from the pack. They are the Prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and the Doctor (Muhammet Uzuner). While the cops search the fields, these two stand back, by the cars, watching. Both are quiet men, watchful, focused. They do not make small talk like the others. Only when the body is found will they have a purpose here, and they know it. The long grass rustles in the night wind. The giant trees whip around against the black sky. The fields launch themselves up, in undulating hills, unmarked by street lamps of towns. Nothingness. Far in the distance, on a high hill, a night train goes by, and it is so remote as to be on the other side of the moon.

Seemingly to kill time, the Prosecutor tells a story to the Doctor, about a woman he heard of who predicted correctly the day of her own death. Death is on his mind, naturally, on a night like this one. The Doctor, a fox-faced man, still waters running deep, takes the story in. He thinks about it. He stares out into the night. He wonders out loud to himself if perhaps the woman had poisoned herself. There is a swelling of something else going on inside the Prosecutor. The Doctor’s words represent a difference in how one looks at life: Either events are random, or they are foreordained. The Prosecutor and the Doctor are on opposite poles of this philosophical debate. They keep coming back to the same conversation, with many interruptions, over the course of the film. The Prosecutor takes the story on faith, the Doctor treats it with skepticism and empiricism. There has to be a scientific explanation for this woman’s death.

Gradually, again as if by stealth, it becomes clear that this is the most important standoff in the film.

Meanwhile, the search goes on. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, tempers flaring high as the search reveals no results, the Prosecutor declares that they will drive to the next village and stop by the Mayor’s house to have a bite to eat.

There is then an extraordinary sequence when the search party, plus murder suspects, show up at the Mayor’s gated cottage, crouched beside a barn and a clothesline. Ercan Kesal plays Mukhtar the Mayor, and he is a comfortable-looking yet canny fellow, having his wife (who we never see) put out plates of food for the exhausted men, and honing in on the Prosecutor as the guy who could pull a few strings regionally in order to get the financing for a local morgue. Couldn’t the Prosecutor talk to someone? Surely he could. I loved Kesal’s performance because he does not grovel, he does not cower down before the big-city cops. He lives humbly, his home is a hovel, and he proudly offers what he has, but also has the smarts to know, “Well. As long as these guys are here, I better make my pitch.”

The electricity goes out. The Mayor apologizes repeatedly. The men gathered in the main room seem exhausted, depleted. Some of them nod off into naps. The Doctor sits by the window, staring out at the wild windy night.

Then, like a literal vision, the Mayor’s 14-year-old daughter (Cansu Demirci) emerges from the kitchen, holding an oil lamp and a tray of tea for the men. In a silent sequence, pregnant with unspoken feelings, she circulates through the darkness, the lamp lighting up her face, offering each man a glass of tea. One by one, they look up at her, and one by one, they are all startled out of torpor by the mere sight of her. It’s not her beauty. Or maybe it is. But there is more happening, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does not name what it is. Later, the Doctor says to the Prosecutor, in a tone of regret, how sad it is that such a creature would be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, with no prospects, no future. But that can’t be all that is going on as one by one the men look up at this vision, of light, of sustenance, of youth and hope, and one by one, they are shaken up, they have to look twice, they stare up at her as though she has stepped out of a medieval triptych. Nobody speaks. She bears up under their gaze. She seems to mean something more than what she is: a young peasant girl in the middle of the steppe.

There are only two women who appear onscreen in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the Mayor’s 14-year-old daughter and the wife of the murdered man, who shows up in the final sequence. Neither have any lines. They stand to the side of the action, and yet somehow they are central. The other woman in the film, the one we never see, but the one we can’t stop thinking about, is the one that the Doctor and the Prosecutor keep discussing, that supposedly hypothetical woman who predicted the day of her own death. When women are so noticeably absent, and noticeably silent, they grow in size and import. They are everywhere, and yet silent and withholding of their secrets. Like the landscape.

The murdered man is finally found and the motorcade heads back to town for the autopsy. Now, the Doctor can step forward in importance. Now he can assert his knowledge, and the superiority of science. He’s such a quiet man, though. He may be certain of what he knows, but his feelings about that certainty appear to be quite ambivalent.

The philosophical confrontation between The Doctor and The Prosecutor involving the ongoing parable about the woman who predicted her own death finally comes to a head, in a scene that is painful to watch, due to The Prosecutor’s leering rictus grin, covering up a universe of personal pain. There is no triumph in the moment for The Doctor. There is work to be done, a body to examine, a wife waiting to identify the body. The signposts of town (computer hookups, parking meters, drug stores), seem almost silly when compared to the insistence of the Anatolian steppe and the waving tall grass, the featurelessness of the grey fields.

James Joyce wrote, famously, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” These words are true for the Doctor, the Prosecutor, the tormented murder suspect, the young light-bearing angel, and indeed for everyone in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. It is that unspoken nightmare, never described, and the desire to be freed from it, that gives the film its slow agonizing burn.

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5 Responses to The Slow Burn of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

  1. peter howell says:

    Watching these weary, sad and haunted men stare into the impossibly beautiful face of a teenage girl is something I’ll never forget.

  2. KDR says:

    Shelia – absolutely wonderful review. This is easily my favorite movie of the year and I’ve seen over 150 releases for the year! Here was my take on it – nowhere near as marvelous as yours but I am still learning.

    Really want to see it on the big screen. If you haven’t already – check out all of Ceylan’s films, great stuff.

    • sheila says:

      KDR – thanks so much for reading, for the nice response to my work and also your link to your own review! I found it very interesting. Loved the screengrabs of the three thoughtful faces – one of the best parts of the film was how much time it allowed for us, the audience, to contemplate those faces. I love a film that allows so much mystery!

      Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: Favorite Films of 2012 | Reconnoitering the Abyss

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