Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) (2011)

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) first published by Film4

Summary: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Grand Prix winner at Cannes 2011 investigates the buried mysteries of humanity.

Review: If cinema is a window, all at once framing and restricting our view of the world that it both constructs and documents, then right from the very outset Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) casts us as outsiders looking in from the darkness. For the film opens with DP Zeynep Özbatur Atakan’s camera peering through an external window upon three male figures, their faces at first distorted by the grimy pane, and their voices muted to a dull unintelligibility. 

We are excluded from knowing who these three apparently happy drinking buddies are, or what exactly is occurring between them – but by the time the film’s next sequence unfolds out on the Anatolian steppes, only two of the three remain in the land of the living. In another cinematic reflex, we see the crepuscular gloom illuminated by shining headlights, as a convoy of three cars brings Kenan (Firat Tanis) and his younger brother Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz), both recognisable from the first scene, to identify the burial place of their associate Yasar – to whose murder Kenan has evidently already confessed. 

Conducting the investigation is municipal police chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), joined by Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), attending doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), and a retinue of policemen, military gendarmes, court officials and diggers – but with the light dwindling and Kenan’s directions repeatedly failing, we are taken along on a wild goose chase in search not just of a corpse, but of the very meaning of a narrative that is constantly getting stalled or sidetracked. For while these men squabble over jurisdictional issues, petty provincial politics and pecking orders, and reflect upon their own mistakes and mortality, director/co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Uzak, Climates, Three Monkeys) takes the long route, observing his characters’ foibles from a leisurely distance and exhuming (at least for the attentive) several of their buried secrets.        

When Cemal complains of his boredom with all the stopping, starting and endless waiting, Naci’s driver ‘Arab’ Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) recommends he regard the experience as an opportunity for future family entertainment. “‘Once upon a time in Anatolia'”, Ali suggests as the unlikely opening gambit for the doctor’s retelling of this long, dark night’s events. “You can tell it like a fairytale.” Stories here are certainly open to being told in different versions. Kenan keeps changing his account of where Yasar lies and why he was killed (while ensuring his own brother remains silent on what really happened). The Prosecutor, in his court statement, dictates his witnesses’ words for them, leaving us to wonder what they might have said for themselves. When the Prosecutor tells an anecdote to exemplify his claim that death cannot always be explained, his apparently casual tale of a miraculous mystery becomes, under Cemal’s skeptical cross-examination, something more akin to a tragedy (with devastating ramifications for its not altogether straightforward teller). Ultimately Cemal himself will, for whatever reason, suppress vital evidence from his official medical report on the victim. And while Ceylan’s filmmaking may be dominated by naturalism, one memorable scene (with a ghostly apparition) suggests that this film might just as easily have been a guilt-riddled tale of the supernatural.   

Through all these stories that keep changing shape, Ceylan dramatises how his characters – and we along with them – are never really seeing the full picture but rather merely glimpsing fragments of narrative through the shifting moonlight, village blackouts and lightning flashes. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia ends as it begins, with a window – a window that this time Cemal himself is looking out, with his back turned on a colleague who is performing an autopsy (from the Greek autopsia, literally a ‘viewing for oneself’). By now it is daytime,  but in a way we remain out in the dark. 

On top of all this, Ceylan’s film is wonderfully acted (especially by Birsel, whose smile somehow radiates both warmth and sadness), stunningly composed and lit, and full of sly humour. No surprise then that it won the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Verdict: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wild goose chase is a crime drama, a road movie and a humanist mystery. It is also simply unmissable – and well worth seeing more than once.   

© Anton Bitel