Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan
Duration: 150 min.
Life in a small town is akin to journeying in the middle of the Anatolian steppes: the sense that 'something new and different' could spring up behind every hill, but always unerringly similar, tapering, vanishing or lingering monotonous roads...
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, co-written by Ercan Kesal and Ebru Ceylan. It premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it tied for the Grand Prix with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike. It has also been selected as Turkey's submission to the 84th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
With a such a bold title and a running time of two and a half hours, you might get the impression that Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest effort was some sort of heroic epic. The fact is, that couldn't be further from the truth. It is a slow purposeful character study presented in the guise of a police procedural, having more in common with Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu's 2009 film Police, Adjective than anything from Sergio Leone, Robert Rodriguez, or Tsui Hark. Heck, even the 'hero' of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia isn't clear until very late in the film.
So Ceylan begins, already having toyed with our expectations in that loaded title, with a long close-up look from the outdoors into a dimly lit garage through a cloudy window. There is no music, only the sound of the odd truck rolling by, a dog barking, and the rustling of wind; and at first, only the combined glow of incandescent lights, a television, and perhaps the movement of some blurry figures can be made out through the dirty pane of glass. However, the camera proceeds to move ever so slowly closer, and we start to hear muffled voices, and eventually into focus we see the shapes of three men sitting together sharing a meal and telling stories. Three characters whose importance to the story are not revealed until much later. This goes on for awhile, until one of the men gets up and walks over to our window. As he approaches, the camera quickly backs up, almost like an instinctive reaction as if it's afraid of being caught spying. This strange introductory sequence immediately puts us on notice that this isn't going to be your typical movie, and that just maybe this will be more involving for the audience than something to just sit back and watch.
I won't go into any further detail about the plot or story because to be honest there isn't a lot to tell, and because much of the beauty of this film is in the gradual attentive discovery of the who, what, and whys. But I will attempt to describe just what makes this long, slow, thin-on-story film so great.
For one thing, it's the picturesque evening cinematography of the Anatolian vistas, much of it lit only by moonlight and headlamps, making all the many stunning locations, and there are quite a few, look majestic, even if they mostly appear the same. It's the long lingering shots that draw attention to characters or objects which may or may not have a major influence on the outcome of the film, we never quite know for sure because there are none of the usual manipulative music cues to tell us how to feel. These aren't the typical cinematic tricks of misdirection seen in detective thrillers, these are carefully directed moments that allow the audience to reflect on the significance of them not only in relation to the film, but also in our own lives.
It's the slow and steady gliding or the long and distant framing, and the darkness and shadows of night that cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki uses so perfectly to cast on the actors' faces. Setting the precise mood to make us consider every image and every seemingly throwaway line of dialog for a hidden or greater meaning.
It's the brilliantly written script, made to sound completely natural as these men on this long night pass the time with random conversation. Whether they are commenting on buffalo yogurt, their wives, past jobs, or other wild anecdotes, every exchange is important in our understanding of these characters and to Ceylan's goal of the film. Even much of the humor translates well enough for a foreigner to appreciate, providing several moments of welcome comic relief.
It's also the well rounded characters, each one given just the right amount of dialog and screen time to fulfill their purpose. It's the wonderful acting from the ensemble cast, all men save for two women in brief but monumentally important appearances, every one of them entirely convincing. And it's the masterful climax at the end of the film that finally brings everything together in a latex gloved squishy mess.
If you are inclined to believe that films are much more than just a form of entertainment, that there is no such thing as established rules in cinema, that sometimes the journey can be more interesting or important than the destination, or even if you just like gorgeously photographed images of strange lands, then do not miss Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for this is one of the best films of the past year.
— Bonjour Tristesse