Since the success of his seminal hit Uzak [Distant], director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been as unpredictable a talent as any other practitioner in his field, producing a steady stream of critically lauded, and highly varied, projects that proceed to evolve and build upon his unique visual and narrative style. For his latest release, Ceylan has made no concessions, collaborating for the third time with his trusted cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, and the results, simply put, are breathtaking.
Dirk Bogarde once said of Bertrand Tavernier that nothing happens in his films except all of life. It’s a sentiment that equally applies to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia where action is minimal and psychological exposition everything. In short, it’s the story of a hunt for the burial spot of an unnamed murder victim as the police, a local commissar (Yilmaz Erdogan), a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and the suspected killers spend an entire night driving through the desolate countryside getting to know one another or, to put it more accurately, themselves.
Like Tavernier the plot is sparse almost to the point of standing still but Ceylan textures his film with some sumptuously bold photography and brilliantly enigmatic sequences. In the first half, shot almost exclusively at night, characters partake in exchanges Quentin Tarantino could only dream of scripting, topics ranging from the relative merits of buffalo cheese to a woman who mysteriously predicted the day of her own death. There are several seemingly incidental moments that only begin to make sense once viewed as a whole. A face carved into a boulder is suddenly revealed by a flash of lightning and an apple is carried along a stream as if being carried by some unknown force. Held together by inspired, unconventional editing and an expert handling of atmosphere, these different elements combine to thrilling effect, drawing the viewer in with all the hypnotic flare of a snake charmer.
At one stage the doctor is told that he’ll one day relish the opportunity to recount the evening to his grandchildren, like a fairy tale, albeit one stirred in with an unexplained murder. It’s a particularly fitting observation given the audiences’ disorientation; are we watching a police procedural, a ghost story or something else entirely? Do we even need to classify it at all in the first place?
There will be few other films this year that will deserve so many repeat viewings as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and probably none that will match it for philosophical depth or originality. Ceylan, together with his cast and crew, have succeeded in making a piece of cinema that is both beautiful and disturbing and utterly unforgettable. In a few words, it’s a genuine triumph.