Minimalist art filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan spent a long time crafting very personal and breathtakingly photographed tales. His work has never been big on plot, nor have they ever been anything other than glacially paced. Indeed, his general aesthetic isn't very welcoming to the impatient, though those willing to give their attention are always struck by something special. His black and white debut "The Town" is a real toughie, containing less of a story and more of a collection of moments — but without the presence of a narrative, Ceylan is free to discover and exhibit universal beauty that isn't dependent on deep characters or drama. A "scene" in a classroom becomes magical when a feather floats into the room, with a few children continually blowing it to stay in the air. Let the tales be told elsewhere, because without being too pretentious, this was life he was capturing in its most undiluted form.
After "The Town," general premises were established in succeeding films but were never much deeper than a logline. "Climates" was about a married couple (played by Ceylan and his wife Ebru) at the very last leg of their relationship — and with that, the director explored guilt, passion, deceit and pettiness without resorting to theatrics. Followers were undeterred by the man's resolution to never shoot film again: the transition was harmless and fluent, plus, his eye for photography still remained.
But once 2008 arrived and "Three Monkeys" rolled into theaters, there were huge changes at hand. He was no longer his own cinematographer (by choice this time: he acted in "Climates" and couldn't take on those duties), color correction was heavily employed, and some CGI effects even popped up now and then. The most obvious change, though, was the inclusion of a substantial plot. "Three Monkeys" was a political Andrei Tarkovsky-esque thriller involving an accidental murder by a wealthy man and the family he convinces to cover-up for him. It was a weird growth spurt, but it still retained the quiet moments and minuscule amounts of dialogue he had normally engaged in. Oh, and it was still really good.
Now, Ceylan hits back with something even more refined. "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is an ensemble epic, clocking in at two and a half hours with a full-blown story and plenty of dialogue to boot. Set in the Anatolian steppe in a single night, two murderers lead the police (and doctor) to the burial site of their victim. Things are complicated thanks to the hazy, alcohol-tinged memories of the guilty, and the team search in fits and starts before tiredly stopping at a local village to rest until morning. The cramped cars and continuing investigation force the men to bond, and their conversations reveal secrets about themselves and the truth behind the killing.
Mentioning that a movie has an overabundance of colloquies tends to send up a red flag (at least for this writer), but the filmmaker refuses to ever make it the center of the scene. Yes, it's full of rather strongly written banter, anecdotes and the occasional musing on life, but Ceylan would rather look at a landscape wide-shot of the men driving through large plains after sundown than focus on these discussions. It gives the movie a weird feeling as it's a bottled ensemble piece akin to something like "12 Angry Men" — except they're not trapped in a single room, but in the endless fields of Turkey.
'Anatolia' is definitely the biggest thing this writing team (consisting of the director, his spouse and actor Ercan Kesal) have ever done, but their greenness doesn't show. Not only is each individual's personality well-defined, but they never force a plot point out of a character or moment, allowing them to exist on their own. For example, while in the village, the doctor comes across a gorgeous young woman and is instantly fixated on her. For one reason or another they don't connect, and later on he laments her being stuck in nowheresville wasting her beauty away. A real hack would reunite them in the end — but the trio lets it be what it is, and the quick happening instead subtly shapes the doctor's behavior for the rest of the film.
Once the victim is finally found, an all-business approach is taken to both the body identification and following autopsy. The compounding of jargon saps out all of the emotion and makes the proceedings very cold; even the chief's furious reaction when they discover the man had been buried alive is defeated by the continuation of official paperwork. It's certainly an interesting angle to take, and although it admittedly makes a long movie feel even longer, it raises questions concerning society's detachment with death and the way someone's life is filed away alongside an endless amount of documents.
Winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, this Oscar-hopeful is an obvious attempt at a masterpiece by a masterful auteur. You can practically feel the exertion in every aspect of it, right down to the numbers on its timecode. Ceylan has reached a new level in his career with "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" and we're more curious than ever to see where he goes next. As for whether it's really a masterpiece or not, we won't be so hasty to lay that kind of honor on it — it definitely warrants another viewing if we're going to seriously consider it as such. That said, it's still without a doubt an exceptional movie that deserves all the plaudits it has received so far. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the New York Film Festival.