The first shot in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a dirty window filmed from the outside. A slow zoom and focus pull take the audience through the window to view three men drinking, one of whom the audience only ever see again after he has been murdered. The other two men spend most of the rest of the film travelling in a police convoy through the mountains in Central Anatolia, trying to remember where they buried the body having since confessed to murdering their friend. Of these two, only one of them, Kenan (Firat Tanis), is prominently featured in the film as he rides in the main car that also carries the police commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) and the town’s doctor Cernal (Muhammet Uzuner). The rest of the convoy consists of various police officers, army personnel and gravediggers, plus the local prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), the final key character in the drama that takes place during one night and one morning.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is superficially a police procedural, even though the killers have confessed, nobody seems concerned about their motives and all that needs to be done is for the body to be located if only Kenan and his accomplice could remember where they buried it. Instead, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an epic meditation on morality, civilisation, masculinity and how each generation suffers the sins of the one before it. The conversations at the start of the film, as the characters drive through the dark night, are about things such as different types of yoghurt. As the night wears on and fatigue and frustration sets in, the conversations become more intimate, particularly between Doctor Cernal and Prosecutor Nusret, the two most educated men who find a degree of common ground in comparison to the more emotional Commissioner Naci. A story Nusret tells Cernal about a woman who predicted her own death is continually returned to with Cernal irritated that no logical explanation can be offered for what happened. The discussion between Cernal and Nusret about what can be rationally explained and what cannot underpins the entire film, which often undermines obvious cause and effect narrative developments in order to comment on the difference between knowing the objective truth and believing an interpreted truth that makes life more bearable.
Many critics have compared Ceylan to Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami, with his direction in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia also earning him comparisons to John Cassavetes, Krzysztof Kiéslowski and Michael Haneke. Perhaps another director that Ceylan is influenced by is the one that the title of the film most overtly suggests, and that’s Sergio Leone who directed two (arguably three if you include alternate titles) films with titles that begin with ‘Once Upon a Time in’. Like the case with many of Leone’s films, what happens in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia comments on the broader history, politics and culture of a geographical region. The main three characters are also identified broadly as archetypes; they are still complex characters developed throughout the film and identified by their actual names, but they are introduced and often referred to simply as the Police Chief, the Prosecutor and the Doctor.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is about men who are figuratively lost in a vast and indifferent landscape that threatens to consume them. Throughout the film long shots are repeatedly used to remind the audience how small the characters are in the terrain where the lightening, thunder and strong winds of an approaching storm create dark foreboding. There is also a sense of the frontier in the film’s rural setting. In one scene the police driver Arap Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) speaks about the lawlessness and the need for everybody to fend for themselves. The region is tribally broken up into small villages, one of which the convoy visit and meet its mayor who is more concerned with building a state-of-the-art morgue than maintaining the village’s electricity supply – death is ever present in this film. Women are almost entirely absent so that when one does appear, in this case the village mayor’s daughter, she is an angelic apparition who moves the men not just to tears, but profound realisations.
Despite the absence of cut and dried resolution or narrative urgency, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is compelling and engaging cinema. Ceylan’s visual mastery means that the long shots of the men on the mountains not only convey the desired sensation of them being exposed and open to scrutiny, but these shots are simply beautiful. In particular, shots of fields of wild grass illuminated by car headlights at night possess an immense visual power. Ceylan also does extraordinary things with the sound design, including using dogs barking to underpin scenes directly connected to the murder. Combining the sounds of children playing with the sounds of an autopsy brings together the major themes and narrative strands of the film over the end credits. There are deep mysteries in this film, not just about what happened or why, but what it means for the characters and what it means for the audience sharing their journey. Ceylan’s direction is so assured that unlike the convoy, there is never any doubt that the film is leading to a point where all will be revealed, even if that revelation is not immediate, tangible or easily expressed. The result is a cinematic experience that lingers long in the mind and demands repeat viewings.