Dusk 'til Dawn
From the very first shot, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia presents itself as a purely cinematic delight. After a very brief prologue, we are placed smack bang in the middle of the Turkish mountains, where we and the characters will spend the next 90 minutes or so. It's nighttime, and a motley crew of ten or so (police officers, a doctor, two handcuffed suspects, a prosecutor, some 'diggers' and two soldiers there to provide military grade lighting) are out searching for a dead body. Night has rarely felt so menacing yet so strangely beautiful. Often illuminated only by headlights, and soundtracked to distant thunder, the mountainous setting for this film is absolutely captivating. The takes are often long, and the editing considered. Yet it's rarely boring, and the film makes much effort to keep the audience involved.
The travellers engage in miscellaneous banter as they search for the hidden burial spot - recounting peculiar stories and debating the merits & demerits of buffalo yoghurt. After hours of searching and numerous dead ends (pardon the pun), they make a pre-dawn stop at a mountain village, where the village elder tries to recount the villagers' hardship while they eat. It's a particularly thoughtful tangent, where the characters experience almost dreamlike revelations and insight (they're all stunned to silence as the elder's beautiful daughter provides tea by candlelight during a blackout). This is a film where it's almost hard to verbalise the film's thematic concerns, but they're constantly there in subtle, understated form. The contradictions of contemporary society, children's inheritance of their parents' mistakes, the complexity of masculinity: these are just a few of the curious subjects explored by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his co-writers.
Eventually, the sun rises, and the film takes a tonal shift of sorts. An extended, blackly comic sequence amusingly satirises police procedural thrillers. This is not a thrilling job for the police and their comrades, but instead one full of paperwork, long hours and unromantic manual labour. The group ultimately arrive back in town, and the focus - the attention having previously been balanced between several different characters - is on the doctor, played by Muhammet Uzuner. I'd be lying if I said the daytime sequences were as aesthetically pleasing or dreamy as the opening half, but there's still much to engage with in the film's ambiguous, sombre closing hour.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a film that provides us with much material to ponder over. A particularly curious strand is a story the prosecutor (Taner Birsel) slowly recounts to the doctor over the extended running time, concerning a woman who simply dropped dead, seemingly of her own free will. Similarly, one of the murder suspects has a few almost dialogue free scenes in which his relationship with his victim is ambiguously suggested. Such scenes are purposefully vague and mysterious, and many important revelations are merely proposed or suggested rather than explicitly confirmed. It's a film that trusts the audience to interpret events on their own, and there's little to no spoon feeding.
This isn't easy, gentle viewing. It's often proudly 'difficult', and many hardy viewers' attention spans will be challenged during a handful of particularly obtuse moments. But from the majestic, poetic first half to the thematically complex second, it's a film that rewards commitment and effort. Considered, mysterious, majestic: Once Upon a Time... may well hypnotise those who allow it to wash over them.