for ‘Tribune’: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA [8/10]

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

WE’RE only at the Ides of March, but unless 2012 turns out to be an unprecedented annus mirabilis for cinema it seems safe to predict that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the sixth feature by Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, will rank among the finest UK new-releases of the year in many critics’ December wrap-ups. Eight years after his international breakthrough Distant (2003) won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival – Anatolia likewise took the same prize, effectively the ‘runner-up’ award. Ceylan’s picture screened right at the end of the festival, allowing the jury a truncated period to ponder its mysteries and savour its moods – otherwise it might well have edged out Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and taken the Palme d’Or itself.

Of course, with Malick there was a degree of “lifetime achievement” in the Palme win – the kind of sentiment that will doubtless see Ceylan, who took Best Director at the 2008 festival for Three Monkeys and the international critics’ prize for Distant in 2006, similarly rewarded sooner rather than later. He’s now firmly established as a major figure of European cinema – Turkey geographically and culturally straddling both Europe and Asia, although it’s perhaps telling that the title of Ceylan’s picture locates it firmly within the Asian part of his nation.

We’re in a remote, underpopulated corner of the country, as several cars full of policemen and other officials scour the land in search of a buried murder-victim – with taciturn guidance from the suspected murderer, Kenan (Firat Tanis). It’s night-time, and the only illumination comes from the cars’ headlights – otherwise the countryside is a zone of impenetrably deep shadows, treacherous ravines, hidden waterways, ancient silences. In this stripped-down form of cinema, the dialogue (screenplay by the director in collaboration with Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal) becomes crucial, delineating the relationships between the central figures – Cemal, a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), Naci, the police commissioner (Yilmaz Erdogan), Nusret the prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and Ali, the driver (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan). As the hours wear on, fatigue kicks in – and their impatience with Kenan’s vague directions becomes sharper.

The first “half” of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a multi-layered masterclass in minimalist cinema, with pitch-perfect performances, precisely-calibrated dialogue and, most astonishing of all, spellbinding cinematography from Gökhan Tiryaki, who must make each shot appear as if it’s lit only by car headlights (and perhaps it was). How Tiryaki was left off the nominations in the cinematography section of the European Film Awards is an enigma worthy of the film itself.

This is a long film, running more than two and a half hours in total, but such is the hypnotic power of Ceylan’s nocturnal chronicle that considerations of time recede – indeed, it’s a slight disappoinment when day finally comes, and the action shifts to the town where the doctor performs the much-delayed autopsy. But Anatolia, while uneven in its impact, is a poetic and mature work which demands to be appreciated in toto – punctuated with breathtaking moments (an apple bouncing down a hill and into a river is a particular show-stopper), but crafted with a truly novelistic sweep that rewards every ounce of attention it demands.

Neil Young
6th March 2012
written for Tribune magazine