It won a prize at Cannes and has attracted five star reviews. But does the latest film by acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan make for enjoyable viewing?
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has the feel of a novel. All the ingredients are there – the bleak nocturnal landscape; a disparate group of men, each with their own regrets; a mysterious murder.
In this case, however, the police have caught their murderer and extracted a confession. The problem is the body. The murderer, skinny with bedraggled hair and alert black eyes, can’t remember where he buried it. As a member of the weary entourage comments, it’s not easy when everywhere looks the same.
This mixture of tedium and foreboding defines the first half of the film. Borrowing the palette of a horror film, the camera hooks on grain caught in a sudden wind or follows an apple as it rolls to some unknown destination. The men’s talk betrays the pettiness of small town Turkish law enforcement and a fear – they are mostly plump and balding – that they may never escape it. When a young woman finally makes it into the frame, bearing lamps and tea, they watch her as they might an angel. Or a ghost.
As night gives way to day, the orthodox chronology of a murder inquiry reasserts itself. The body is found. The suspect is marched off for trial. Yet even as an official narrative is relentlessly recorded, the film hints at a darker and more complex murder.
Such tantalising ambiguity in a novel would have the reader scrabbling back to previous chapters. In a film, though, this is not so easy – and at a hefty two hours and 37 minutes long, this one defies a casual watch-again. Even a single viewing left the audience distinctly restless.
Ambitious and original, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia deserves its critical acclaim. The amateur filmgoer, though, might prefer to save it for a rainy day.