More than half of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 157-minute-long film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), takes place at night, in the merciless Anatolian landscape where a group of men, including the murder suspects, are looking for the body of the victim. In fact, the entire film takes place in less than a day as the investigating team first scours the Anatolian steppes, rests at a local mukhtar‘s (mayor) home, continues its work, and finally heads into a nearby town to file the report, examine the body and bring this journey–this police-invetigation-turned-existential-search– to its conclusion.
You would think that as the night gives way to daybreak, clarity and certainty will also emerge, justice will be done. But as this remarkable film slowly unfolds in scenes which are as theatrical as they are painterly, the causes and method of murder recede, giving way to a riveting, absorbing meditation of death and love. The characters are unforgettable–from the prosecutor all the way to the driver, Arab Ali–Ceylan’s portraiture is slow, masterful and meticulous. Against the background of the Anatolian landscape, Ceylan reveals the the burdens of each of these men–especially the prime suspect, the prosecutor, and the ambiguous doctor, burdens which invariably come back to love, and its entangled relationship with death and beauty.
I can write for pages on this ambitious gem of a film–its play of light and dark, its transgressions, its ethics of display (what is shows and what it hides), but most of all its allegiance to literature, to Chekov in the choice and development of character, and to Dostoyevsky in the variations of the metaphor of crime and punishment. Every single shot is a pleasure of behold, every line of the screenplay is a cry from the heart, sometimes trivial, sometimes profound.
In my mind there’s a kind of aesthetic solidarity between three films which I love: Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Angolopoulos’ Ulysses Gaze, and Ashghar Farhadi’s A Separation. As different as they are, these three films come from other places, on the edge of the mainstream filmic universe; all large in their vision; all meticulous in their composition; all informed with a deep humanity for the persons which usually drop of the frame of life or lurk on the edges, persons who carry their troubles often awkwardly, rarely heroically, individuals battling their environment and surroundings, in foreign languages so authentic we are snared into believing they’re our own.