Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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.

Julia Rampen

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is currently showing at the Curzon Soho, Odeon Panton Street, Renoir, Gate Cinema Notting Hill, Ritzy Cinema Brixton and hmvcurzon Wimbledon.

See also:

Graphic: Only two Middle Eastern films released in the UK since January 2012

Review of Iranian film A Separation: “A timely reminder that there is more to Iran than Ahmadinejad”

Top Tweets from the London Palestinian Film Festival 2012

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About Julia Rampen

London-based journalist. Find me on Twitter @JuliaRampen

8 comments

  1. Monique

    Great review. I went to go and see this film with my family and felt exactly the same. I was becoming agitated with the repetitive contemplative silences that seemed to make up half the film. If you actually list the major events in the film you realise you have pretty much watched nothing happen.

  2. Haha glad you liked it! My first draft was quite critical and I actually toned it down in deference to all the praise heaped on it… maybe you have to be a middle aged man to truly appreciate it? (Julia)

  3. NazarBlue

    In my experience its typically Turkish to have long contemplative silences in film. Turks adore the use of silence – they make good use of it in their most tragic or gripping films / telefilms. The first time I watched revered film Uzak I was quite annoyed – then I slowly got used to these Turkish ways after watching Climates, and other films from shown at the London Turkish Film Festival.. After a staying with the in-laws in Istanbul and watching tragic soap operas, I now totally get these silences.
    Perhaps though 2hr 37 mins worth of that kind of movie is too much to bear!

    • Thanks for that insightful comment. I did wonder (not having a huge knowledge of Turkish films) so it’s interesting to hear you say that. I thought it was probably worth mentioning on a British blog because people won’t necessarily be prepared for it… I saw one woman leave during the screening, and I imagine it was probably just because she’d underestimated the length and had an appointment to make!

      Julia

  4. NazarBlue

    Here is a prime example of Turkish Tele film – this one called Hayat Devam Ediyor (Life Goes On) is horrendously tragic, but its those silences and the music that fills them which had me bawling my eyes out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpOJbtl_wSY
    Here’s a spoof Turkush film made by a Kosovan comedy trio 🙂 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkpE7LXvqRQ
    Anyway great blog you have going here.. Will you be posting about live music too?

  5. haha wow that looks intense! I travelled around Turkey two summers ago and everyone seemed so nice! clearly a lot going on behind closed doors.

    Thanks for your kind words about the blog. We are really up for covering live music, so if you have any tip offs please let us know – our email is middleeastlondon [at] gmail.com. In the past we have covered events with rappers and interviews with composers, so we’re interested in anything

    Sorry for the slow reply and thanks for commenting

    Julia

  6. Pingback: Only one in sixty films released in the UK is from the Middle East: We ask why « Middle East LDN

  7. Pingback: Metaphors, silences and first love: An overview of recent Middle Eastern cinema « Middle East LDN

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