Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Reviews
Every frame of that first hour and a bit is a painting waiting to be sold. Exquisite composition and cinematography, with many a long take emphasising the beauty of the rolling hills against the slow-moving people and cars.
Every take is a patient one. Life isn't quick cuts and dramatic reveals. We're forced [I mean it in the best possible way, but others will say it's in the worst] to experience the banality these men go through.
Clearly this is masterful screen-writing and direction, because I was leaning forward, on the edge of my seat the whole way through, while the sighs and fidgeting echoed around me.
It beats me why 'Anatolia' took second prize at Cannes last year. But 2011 was a tough year in general for Cannes. Top prize went to "The Tree of Life," which in my view was run-of-the-mill Buddhism tarted up with kaleidoscopic visuals.
In my review of 'Tree,' I described it as a bloated over-statement. I'd describe 'Anatolia' as a bloated non-statement. If it can be imagined, 'Anatolia' has even fewer ideas than 'Tree.' And Cannes was all aflutter over these two films? It must have been a very undistinguished group of films in competition last year.
'Anatolia' is a long, slow, boring dirge. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Ceylan, who has a very good reputation among serious cinephiles (but this is the first Ceylan film I have seen), takes a bunch of middle-aged male actors out to the remote, frighteningly barren countryside of Turkey in the middle of the night and follows them around with his camera as they amble about in a sleep-deprived stupor.
They are playing policemen on a murder investigation. Why they are conducting an investigation in the middle of the night is never explained. Their caravan of broken-down vehicles pulls up to one barren location after the next, and all the men look around the ground for clues. Most of them are overweight, semi-educated imbeciles -- peasants with a high school diploma. The only one with real intelligence is a doctor, who inexplicably is along for the ride.
That doctor becomes the heart of the movie, and gradually he does emerge as a slightly interesting character. But only slightly. He, like all the other characters, has nothing to do, so his character can only be contemplated in the abstract.
In the last half-hour of this overly long film (two-and-a-half hours), I started to feel that Ceylan was a true artist. Probably only a minor one, but a true one. He does have something mournful to say about life and about people that is genuinely artistic. I just don't think he captured his artistic viewpoint very effectively here, either in the writing of the script or the directing of the film shoot.
The cinematography, art direction, and editing is consistently pedestrian. My hunch is that he consciously chose a flat style -- flat neo-realist style is very popular in high-art cinema these days (see also Iran's "A Separation," which has become such an art-house hit in America and is likely to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film). But I don't think it served Ceylan's purpose at all. I can appreciate that he wanted to portray his characters as mind-numbingly boring and flat. But when the man behind the camera starts to seem mind-numbingly boring and flat, something has gone wrong -- at least for me.
At two and a half hours this will be a challenge for most viewers, it certainly was for this one. A shame as if the final act were shorn this would be a really enjoyable film. The characters are deeply likable and could be the most realistic looking cops ever seen on screen. They all look like men on the verge of heart conditions, walking lumps of sweaty cholesterol. In the opening scene one complains of being served yoghurt instead of kebabs. "Skimmed Yoghurt! You'd be ashamed to write the words!"
Birsel and Uzuner are fantastic as a prosecutor and a doctor. Were this a western movie those characters would be treated suspiciously, but in eastern culture educated people are respected not mistrusted. The working class cops have immense respect for these two and hang on their every word as did I.
There's some great macabre humour on display, particularly a moment where, dictating a crime scene report, Birsel describes the corpse as resembling Clark Gable. The onlooking cops break down laughing and it's a joyous moment that won't fail to raise a smile.
A diversion to a small village sees the local mayor ply them with food while bending the prosecutor's ear with tales of the economic state of his district. His pleas fall on deaf ears as the men are more interested in the food than village politics.
When the movie gets off the road in the final act it loses all momentum unfortunately. With someone to reign him in though, Ceylan could be a director to watch, though perhaps better suited to TV where he can let his stories breath.
Sure, there are times here when it will seem like you stumbled into a Quentin Tarantino movie by accident, especially with its epic length and deliberate pacing, but there is more going on here than just a bleakly funny shaggy dog joke that goes on just long enough to answer one question and raising a whole bunch of others. The central issue that director Nuri Bilge Ceylan wonders about here is his home country of Turkey's possible place in the European Union and the answer is not exactly positive. Start with a small town and its misplaced priorities in building a first class morgue when it can not even manage its electricity needs successfully on a windy night.(Admittedly, this is a universal problem, as cities here in the United States build sports stadiums they can hardly afford while other much more important needs go by the wayside.) That's not to mention the other deeper problem of emigration and you start to wonder what Turkey's future might look like.
One of the most immaculately developed screenplays I've ever experienced, starts with a night in which three men drink and talk and moves to a night where three cars carry a small group of men - police officers, a doctor, a prosecutor, grave diggers, gendarmerie forces, and two brothers, homicide suspects - around in the rural surroundings of the Anatolian town Keskin, in search of a buried body... I don't want to give away much of the story but in this film you'll have variety of topics so smoothly interwoven (yoghurt, lamb chops, urination, women, disability, death, suicide, hierarchy, bureaucracy, ethics, and their jobs) that you'll feel that you start to know these screen strangers who are slowly becoming a part of your life! Every wonderful shot was almost a story for itself while fitting the bigger picture without any interruption to the tempo of the story telling.
What a pleasure was to watch the performances of Muhammet Uzuner as Doctor Cemal, my favourite Yılmaz Erdoğan as Commissar Naci and always popular Taner Birsel as Prosecutor Nusret who together with the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan took us into the middle of the life of a small town and its specific mentality and hierarchy, while solving a crime! The filmmakers were successful in being as realistic as possible not missing to portray the special atmosphere of Anatolia, which leaves strong impressions on everyone who spent some time in that part of the world. I am a huge fan of Anton Chekhov and it was a pleasant surprise to find many quotations from his stories incorporated in the script.
If you are getting tired of Hollywood fabrications and you need some injection of reality with a flare try this daring screen art , do not miss this lengthy masterly portrait murder investigation story with so much in it!
I was really rattled by this film and want to watch it again pretty damn soon.