As Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia slowly flickers into focus both visually and audibly the world of the steppe too springs in to life. A sea of muffle and blur greets the viewer, as disorientating as it is immediately compulsive a situation to be bearing witness to. Three men drink and eat. One leaves the scenario. We cut to black and a series of simple, slowly paced credits. When the screen next bursts in to life we are greeted by the aftermath of the events that followed the moments just witnessed. Lit by a combination of car headlamps, electrical lightning and candles we see a manhunt take place, albeit for a body that has already passed. The crime has already been committed and solved in the time that it took for the credits to unfold. And moreover, all of this has taken place off-screen and out of sight of the audience.
In the same way that the figures on screen are attending to a situation passed so to is the viewer, albeit from one even further temporally removed from the vantage point of the films protagonists. This very particular method of introduction to the film is not just an appropriate introduction to the plot of Ceylan’s feature, but also serves as an ideal explanation as to how he will be portraying the unfolding situation. Even by the closing moments of the film we still only have the vaguest idea of the crime that’s been committed. We know very little about the protagonists too. Nothing is explicitly stated, nor does anyone occupy the roles that we might expect of them given their job titles (Ceylan’s is a world in which occupation takes precedence over forename). Muhammet Uzuner’s Doctor, the closest thing that the film has to a central protagonist has past filled with mysterious, what we do know of which is half-pieced together via office wall-adorning still photographs, anecdotes and gossip. Ceylan relies heavily upon viewer intuition to place together the pieces themselves, leading to a number of interpretative standings by the time the final reel has come to an end.
The films title is as much a statement as a premise. Grand and ambitious, beautiful and bold, this is world stage filmmaking. Epic in scope, yet slight in its own immediate curiosity, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia places the magnificent, yet utilises the urgent with which to present its findings. The mundane counters the serious, with the faithful journey audibly punctuated by discourse on the difference between cheese and yoghurt, and the importance of prostate examination. Popular culture also makes an unlikely appearance, with a “moment” shattering appearance of Francis Lai’s Theme From Love Story in the form of one of the groups mobile phone ringtones. A good humour runs through the work, in a manner not dissimilar to the streams that run through the Anatolian steppe. This humour and character driven incidentation is countered by the aggressive nature of the steppe itself. A vast, unforgiving landscape, it’s the very nature of the place that gives Once Upon A Time In Anatolia its chief characteristic.
The beautiful digital photography is perhaps the single greatest element of Ceylan’s film. Shot by the director’s regular DoP, Gökhan Tiryaki, the wide-open matte recalls CinemaScope in the manner in which it affords the breadth and scale of the steppe the necessary room for exhibition. It’s the closest yet that digital cinematography has come to replicating the very particular look of ‘Scope. Stark vistas are cut alongside heavy close-ups, each one outlining the worn marks of the faces at work. Weathered faces tell as much of the story as the dialogue itself, as does the atmosphere of the locale.
Potential dramatic development is buried. As one character reveals “I killed him” it is brushed aside by the man who has decided to accept responsibility for the crime, slighted over by the figure of authority present and never mentioned again. Had this been a traditional mainstream dramatic work then no doubt this second act revelation would have formed the beginning of the redemptive arc for the falsely accused, but instead we never hear of this again. Part of this is comes back to the idea that Ceylan’s film is concerned with the players around the situation, and not those inside of said situation.
A lengthy post-script plays out by way of the recording of an official report. Reciting and in turn reinforcing the events that have recently played out, in minute detail, Ceylan and his figures ultimately fold in on themselves and the tale at hand. The film ends with a man quite literally being stripped apart, opened up and examined; yet the audience is not literally privy to it, in spite of spending over 30 minutes in the same room as the figure. The final shot brings with it the films first shot of blood (echoing Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), and as the credits play out to the sound of an autopsy we are left in a state of confusion, admiration and cinematic enlightenment.