Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s police procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia flaunts an epic treatment, evidenced by its lengthy 150-minute running time as well as its bold, assuming title. The film impresses, proving worthy of the Grand Prix award it received at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
The slow-burn, methodical film centers on a search for a dead body, an investigation that consists of a prisoner (Firat Tanis) — the assumed killer of the missing person — a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a commissar (Yılmaz Erdoğan) and a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner). Ceylan relies heavily on the patience of the audience, often lingering on images for an extended period of time as he unfolds Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s narrative.
The film’s primary settings are split into two parts: the countryside, where the search takes place, and the city, where the main character, Doctor Cemal, returns after his duties are finished. In between, the film is separated by a beautiful intermission that takes place in the village home of a local farmer.
Ceylan is an acclaimed Turkish filmmaker, known for films that examine life and the human condition. In his sixth feature film, he truly brings together his artistic skills and talents, merging them into a cohesive whole.
The camera is never in a rush, and the search for the dead body becomes desperate and helpless as Ceylan drags his characters from one desolate steppe to another, questioning our assumptions about the murderer and whether a murder place.
The film is less about what is said or what happens and more about what is suggested. The first two acts of the film take place in complete darkness, the blinding lights of car headlights serving as the only form of illumination. Ceylan also often diverts the gaze of the camera onto dark, orange skies as clouds begin to form as well as empty fields.
These subtle choices create a sense of haunting dread throughout the film that plays alongside an ominous atmosphere Ceylan brilliantly establishes early on. In one poignant scene, viewers move away from action onscreen and simply follow a rolling apple for an extended period of time until it settles at its resting place in a river. It’s quiet moments like these where the audience is reminded of noteworthy filmmakers, such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is also surprisingly humorous. The film successfully brings together comedy and melodrama, particularly in scenes where the camera captures everyone crammed inside their small vehicles.
In one comical moment, Ceylan depicts all the members of the group hurrying into their cars when one suddenly stumbles behind with an armful of pumpkins, which he then helplessly tries to fit into the trunk of the car in a rush. In the otherwise dreadful world Ceylan establishes, his injection of humor is welcoming because it fleshes out his characters — and the film’s world — through a more lighthearted lens.
And Ceylan’s slowing of time and working with the logistics of space proves his true talents as an artist of cinema. In this film, he emphasizes long pauses and allows for a meditative experience. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia becomes a close examination of character and humanity, especially when the themes come together with a grueling, all-too-realistic autopsy in the film’s conclusion.
And just like that, the audience is forced to speculate, left with more complex questions than it had when the film began.