Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a mesmerising if slow-paced tale, ostensibly concerning the resolution of a murder, and set over the course of one long, dark, sleepless night in the Anatolian steppes of central Turkey. It is beautifully crafted, expertly lit and superbly composed in its unhurried portrayal of its main cast of characters, although not overly focused on resolving or explaining the crime which forms the focus point of the story.
Over the course of the night a convoy of three police vehicles carry a small group through the Anatolian countryside in search of a body. As the search fails to yield the expected cadaver and the drama progresses into the harsh light of the morning, the central characters, including a police chief, a doctor, a prosecutor and the accused, begin to reveal more about their lives. As the sun rises and the drama moves to the morgue table, a resolution of sorts is offered to the whole affair.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan directs with exacting precision, beautifully lighting scenes with just car headlights and the moon. This dramatic setting provides the backdrop for some beautiful cinematic sequences. The camera lingers on an apple rolling downstream, and a lamp illuminates the face of the local Mayor’s daughter as she serves tea – this almost religious vision reducing several characters to tears. There is also genuine comedy in the well-scripted banalities of the police officers’ conversations – their discussions on the different types of yoghurt that there are juxtaposed but the haunted look in the eyes of the accused, wedged between two officers in the back of the police car. Where the tale is going is never really the focus of this intimate study – instead, Ceylan dwells on the small details of each characters life – the police chief’s phone call with his wife, the prisoner letting slip a secret, the doctor’s photos of a failed relationship. In illuminating these troubles perhaps he is trying to draw the characters together through the mutual fragility of each’s own unique situation.Yet the ‘purpose’ of the piece is never exactly clear – this is a film which revels in the small details, without worrying about such concerns as plot resolution.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not, as it may appear, a police drama, and its slow pacing and long running time mean that it will not be for everyone. Yet it is flawless in its execution, beguiling in its attention to detail, and possesses a compelling authenticity in the way in which it asks its questions. There’s something about Ceylan’s masterpiece that keeps you thinking about it long after the credits roll.