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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Andolu'da)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a whole bunch of people
didn't live happily ever after

dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

This is a remarkable film, a very long film, in which very little happens. It's about something fairly important, in that three car loads of gentlemen for most of the film's length are driving around the bleak landscape of Central Anatolia for an important reason, but that reason seems to be out of proportion with the journey they endure.

In essence it becomes less about a murder investigation and more about the men involved, even though we get the barest amount of information about them. And then they drive on and on.

As the film opens, there are three men we observe behind a window, chatting about stuff and laughing, and then one of them gets up and looks out the window. This takes a fair amount of time.

The next we see, after the titles, is a barren landscape in fading light, as a bunch of cars drive across, looking for something. It will be a long time for us and them before they find anything. More so for us.

What follows is a very naturalistic, very mundane police procedural, but don't for a second confuse it with a CSI: Turkey. It's not a forensic investigation or even an investigation. These chaps know who committed the crime, and the guilty are there with them as they drive around in their cars. In fact, there's not a scintilla of mystery to the proceedings. There's just cold hard reality.

Can there be beauty in the mundane? We regard 'beauty' as being something almost rare, or extraordinary, and it truly can be. But we make the distinction between something of surface glossiness and something possessing depth, at least I hope we do. It would seem inelegant or even inappropriate to describe this flick as a beautiful film, because there's nothing obviously beautiful about the set up or the realisation. It's also a very painstakingly slow film. When people in the flick do anything, they do all of it. There aren't a bunch of establishing shots or montage-like edits getting us anywhere, ever. When they need to drive somewhere, they drive the whole time there, and we're with them the whole time. As the sun sets on this fairly grim part of the world, it takes a long time setting. Much is made of the natural light used for much of the flick, and it really does help in making you feel not as an omniscient observer, but as someone who's actually there, having to endure the passage of time, and the petty disagreements and obstacles along with the other characters.

As for those characters, well, they're a strange bunch of people. They're not David Lynch strange, or riddled with quirks and tics as in a Wes Anderson movie; it's just that they seem like they're fully realised but banal characters who live this life and endure all its mundanity for reasons we're never going to find out and that we don't need to know. And we should already know this stuff, since we've been working with them for ages already.

Among them is Kenan (Firat Tanis) who looks suitably unhappy. Also, he looks very tired and hungover. Everyone else is tired too, but he seems to exude the bone-tiredness of the truly guilty. The cops are hauling him around the Anatolian countryside because he's confessed to murdering some chap, and burying him in a shallow grave somewhere. The 'somewhere' is the issue, because he himself isn't sure exactly where. It was a time of high emotions, of course, and the guy was drunk at the time. That never helps with the disposal of murder victims, does it? The landscape which we keep driving through keeps repeating. Kenan is unsure whether it was near this field or that one, that there was a particular tree nearby, and whether there was a fountain nearby. He says something, usually after having been abused by the police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), they drive to another place, they look around, the chief confronts Kenan again, and he mumbles some other detail that might narrow it down. The various personnel discuss the likely spot, and they drive on to the next place.

This occurs for so long that I did get the feeling that they were never going to get there, that it was going to be an endless search, with the people involved getting progressively more disgruntled, but never enough to stop pursuing their goal. You feel that they would keep driving, stopping, continuing, for ever more, like Sisyphus and the stone being rolled up the hill, like Prometheus' liver being torn out daily, because that is, after all, the nature of work. And I'll admit, even more pretentiously, that I wondered whether the director was pulling a Waiting for Godot, with people trapped in a place they can't leave, waiting for an event that will never come to pass.

It's handled so naturally, so mundanely, that it can't help but be beautiful. I know it sounds odd. Once you let go of the framework we've been trained to have by movies, of the way these things are meant to transpire, once you accept that you're as trapped as the rest of them are, you start watching the flick differently. It was never about the murder or the investigation.

After a long while, I realised that the actual protagonist was the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who'd been tagging along silently for the first hour. We never really get to know enough about him to know what makes him tick, but we get enough to realise that he ticks a bit differently from the other tocks. He's a city chap somewhat in the boondocks, who seems to be fairly depressed about something that's happened in his past, perhaps heartbreak in a relationship. He has no real camaraderie with the cops, who treat him respectfully, nor does he really seem to care much about the investigation, or about whether they find the body. In fact, in an action that angers the police chief no end, he seems to buck against the system by showing a basic level of kindness to the suspected murderer by getting him a cigarette.

No, that's not going to cut it with a chap that seems perpetually agitated. Of all of them, of all the characters we get to experience, the police chief is played in the broadest manner possible, which isn't really a problem. Everyone else involved in the excursion seems accepting of it all, if not a bit bored with the whole endeavour. They're bored, but they are comfortable with it. The chief wants to beat the prisoners, even though they've already confessed. There's nothing more to be gained from hassling them, and it's not even a measure of revenge or retribution. He just seems personally offended that they’ve committed such a stupid crime, for no discernible reason, for no justifiable motive.

There are a bunch of other dynamics at play as well. The police chief doesn't kowtow to the Prosecutor (Taner Birsel), but he keeps acting as if he's performing for his benefit. They all defer to the prosecutor in a respectful, obsequious way, but to the doctor they are merely respectful, if incredulous that such a learned man chooses to spend time in their company.

I don't know much, if anything about that part of the world. Turkey is not a place I've ever spent time in, or much time thinking about, to be honest. I've never seen a single other Turkish film in my life, though I'll certainly be checking more out now, at least by this director. I have, on the other hand, spent a lot of time reading the books of Orhan Pamuk, probably Turkey's most famous literary writer, at least since he won the Nobel prize. I like to think that he's Turkey's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but since I know so little else about the culture other than what he writes, for all I know he's Turkey's Stephanie Meyer (just imagine those Twilight books in Turkish! It could only improve them).

What I'm working towards is this point: I don't know much about their culture, or why Central Anatolia is considered such a wasteland by the people living there. The reasons are implicit, never explicit, because they're never up on the screen, and they play no part in the murder investigation, or, more accurately, the search for the body.

A most powerful moment that evokes this curious feeling is when the men, exhausted from searching and driving through the night, decide to stop at a nearby village for food and for a break. The driver of the main car is a very local man (the rest of them, I believe, are from the city of Kirikkale) and he objects to them stopping in the town suggested, for no other reason than that he just doesn't like that rival town, or the people in it, because they're of that town.

Once in the town they dine, though it is the middle of the night, at the home of the mukhtar (I'm not sure if that was his name or his title, equivalent to a mayor perhaps, even if there were only three other shacks around). This chap looks like he's from another age, and in fact their living circumstances are very humble (even though I'm sure I saw a satellite dish on one of the huts). The men eat with gusto, except for the doctor, who is his usual melancholy self, who only becomes more melancholy once he observes the remarkable beauty of the daughter.

The doctor, the prosecutor, one of the other men, they all see the daughter and almost seemed ashamed. In a different film, someone would fall in love with her, and declare their honourable intentions to whisk away from rural misery. In this one they see her and wonder how such a girl could come from such mean circumstances, and then they go on with the rest of their lives.

The expression on the doctor's face when he sees her has stayed with me all these days later, and the way he mutters in regards to her to the prosecutor as they chat outside after their meal. There was some enigmatic about it all, as if there was something I couldn't see, or wasn't meant to see.

This all leads up to the most important part of the story, which is a conversation between the doctor and the prosecutor, which is deceptive in its simplicity but seems most important. The way they drop it makes it seem like idle chatter. The way the prosecutor keeps bringing it back up independent of what's happening makes it seem far more crucial.

In their conversation, which has all the underpinnings of seeming like it's between belief and science, which becomes more of an argument, the prosecutor speaks of a universe in which stuff just happens, and there's no real explanation for it. He speaks of a woman who just thought she was going to die at a particular time, and she did. The doctor, who doesn't know the people involved, is sceptical about the circumstances and the outcome, as he naturally would be. But this doesn't boil down to arguing about belief versus medicine, it becomes about guilt; a guilt far greater than any exhibited even by the murderers of the poor bastard the film pretends to be about.

It’s a remarkable film, in its myriad ways, and the reasons for that remarkableness are completely inexplicable in content or form. The way everything is shot and edited, with a workaday simplicity, the very long takes, the emphasis on the monotonous and the commonplace, and the mundane are captured in a truly beautiful way. I was deeply affected by this flick, and I can't even tell you why, despite all the words I seem to have spilled in its honour. It evokes strong feelings despite or because of its complete lack of stylisation or aestheticism (which is in itself a style and aesthetic, that doesn't escape me). There are no postcard shots, no awe-inspiring vistas meant to wow us with nature or man's grandeur. The quiet moments, as people are just going about their lives; therein lies meaning, but it's up to us to decide what those meanings are.

In a different mood this flick probably would have put me in a coma, since long-take flicks tend to knock me out like gentle chloroform, but somehow I was riveted for its entire (two-and-a-half-hour) length, even as the entire flick subverted expectation at every turn.

It's not for everyone, but it does have rewards for the patient, though the rewards are not the ones you ever could have expected.

After all, who knew our boring-ass lives were the prime source of high art? According to this model, hey, I'm a work of freaking art!

9 times I hope my parents and relatives never find out I praised a Turkish film out of 10

"Women... They can be so very cruel" - you've got that right, bozo - Once Upon a Time in Anatolia