Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Movie Review

Featuring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, Firat Tanis
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writers: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Firat Tanis, Ercan Kesal
Australian release date: Currently screening
Website: www.cinemaguild.com/anatolia/index2.html
Review 1: rolanstein
Review 2: Karen

A convoy of cars travels through the night, stopping at intervals to search off-road in the desolate wilderness of Anatolia for a corpse in a shallow grave. The accused murderer was drunk at the time of the crime, and has only a hazy recollection of the locale. It’s a long and fruitless night ahead, continuing into the next day. The real action is in the dialogue between the men involved in the search, and has little to do with the murder itself.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
I’m late with this review. The truth is, I’ve been putting it off because I don’t know what to make of this movie.

Yes, I know ambivalence is a crime in this case. Yes, I know it won the Grand Prize at Cannes (2011), and going by a quick glance at the Tomatometer, the vast majority of critics have lauded it. This flick’s been out a while now, and as someone who keeps an eye on movie goings-on I have found it impossible to avoid the words ‘masterpiece’ and ‘genius’ that have been liberally flung around in reviews and promo blurb.

We live in an age of superlative overkill, and it is sensible, not cynical, to be wary of extravagant praise. Those M and G words always flash warning lights for me. Critic-driven hype has a way of perpetuating itself, and pretty soon ye olde Emperor’s New Clothes effect kicks in. So is this the case with Anatolia? That is the question.

In short, my answer is yes. Why? Because it has some fatal flaws. At 150 minutes plus it is way too long – read undisciplined – and progresses so bloody slowly that I struggled to stay with it. And at the end, I was not sure of the point of it all. But I fear I missed some vital stuff on the way through.

My fault, or the film’s? I just don’t know! I can only speak as I find. Perhaps I shouldn’t have finished that bottle of red the night before the morning screening. Or am suffering internet-induced shrunken concentration span syndrome (an epidemic right now). But I tell you one thing: I am well aware of the pacing differences between Western mainstream and non-Anglo ‘arthouse’ cinema. In fact, I wrote a post on this very topic a few years ago (Beyond Hollywood…Tuning In To International Cinema). And I have seen and appreciated plenty of non-Anglo ‘arthouse’ over the years. So put that ‘naive viewer’ label away, ta very much.

In a nutshell, here are the reasons I do not rate Anatolia as a masterpiece or anything close to it:

  • I did not find it gripping or moving;
  • did not care much about the characters;
  • thought it desperately in need of a good editing;
  • left the theatre somewhat bemused, and feeling that as a viewer I had not been rewarded for effort, and
  • felt that the movie demanded a second viewing, which would be unthinkably tedious, and that I’d therefore just have to hope my sense of frustration did not linger long.

Vain hope. See, I was subsequently haunted by the film, and still am. Thus, I can’t blithely dismiss it as just another overlong, snail-paced, indulgent arthouse effort that must be respected cos it derives from a culture that is not American and does things differently (difference seemingly automatically being equated with superiority/authenticity/artistic integrity in some critical quarters).

The otherworldly landscape of the Anatolian steppes

So, what of this haunting? Well, first, Anatolia has a moody power about it that seeps into your bones and will not be denied. It is impossible to communicate mood effectively in words – you have to see the movie to experience it for yourself. Best I simply describe some aspects of the movie that have been revisiting me.

First an image that is central: a convoy of cars penetrating the darkness with yellow headlights as they snake through the engulfing wilderness of the desiccated Anatolian steppes on their miserable mission to locate a murder victim’s corpse in a shallow grave out there somewhere.

In the cars, a doctor who will perform the autopsy once the body is found. The Prosecutor. Detectives, cops, manual workers armed with shovels who will exhume the body. And the accused prisoner on whom the success of the nocturnal mission depends, too drunk when he buried the corpse to recall its whereabouts. He cuts a lonely figure, given poignancy by hints that he is taking the rap for his retarded friend, a pariah excluded from the protective male camaraderie in which the others wrap themselves. But the imposing presence of the alien landscape lurking in the starless dark is with them every kilometre of their journey, and no macho chat about food preferences, the health implications of the Prosecutor’s frequent urination stops and other topics of smalltalk can stave off the discomforting thoughts of mortality and its meaning or lack of, and the vague sense of threat and death evoked by this bleak and ancient environmental milieu.

The suspect

During one of the Prosecutor’s piss stops, he wanders off the road into the landscape. A thunderstorm is imminent, and a flash of lightning reveals for a shocking moment a great face carved out of a rocky outcrop, looming right above him. It is but a carving, a remnant of a long-gone tribe, but in the context of the film it is stunningly dramatic and quite unnerving. This scene has come to me many times since, flashing up unbidden on the screen of my mind.

Late in the night, no grave site having been discovered, the convoy stops in a small peasant village, hosted by the local mayor. The electric generator has failed, and the men are served food in candlelight by the mayor’s beautiful, silent daughter, who hovers at their tables like an angelic apparition. They are stunned, like soldiers who have not seen a woman for months, rediscovering their humanity. When she has gone, one of the party expresses wonder that the mayor in a tiny isolated village should produce such a creature, to which another replies that she is wasted out here, and will lose her looks with age without having ever having made anything of her natural advantages. Or words to that effect.

This is the modus operandi of the film. It is not narrative-driven. Rather, the ordinary is tracked until abruptly something extraordinary emerges almost spontaneously (at least, this is the illusion), but the director never feeds us obvious signifiers of meaning. We are left to make of things what we will. Which is plenty if you think about it, or nothing if you don’t. Thus the responsibility of the storyteller falls largely to the audience – an intriguing and admirable instance of artistic democracy, perhaps, but sometimes onerous in effect.

Then there is The Apple. What to make of this? When the party continues its search by daylight, they stop at a site in the wilderness the accused thinks he remembers. There is a stream, and an apple tree in near vicinity. An apple falls into the stream, and the camera follows as it bobs along, borne by the waters, and borne, and borne… At last it reaches an eddy, where it looses the grip of the current, ending its journey in a calm patch of water in which there are other apples in varying states of decay. A metaphor? Sure, plenty of possibilities there, but this slow, extended tracking shot comes close to arthouse parody!

As the film nears its end (as opposed to conclusion), the doctor, a man who steadfastly believes in fact backed by science, steps out of character and backs off from his principles in an act of mercy that amounts to lying for the greater good. A surprising twist which, in unavoidably laying itself bare as a device, is one of the few nods to narrative convention to been found in the screenplay. Indeed, for much of the film it seems that the actors are extemporising and that there is no script underpinning their extremely naturalistic performances (the acting is superb).

Ceylan has been compared to Chekhov in his focus on ‘ordinary people’, his plotlessness, and his unresolved endings. While these points of comparison may be valid, Chekhov sparkles with a mischief and wit that delights the reader, whereas Ceylan – going by Anatolia – can get turgid and tedious in his perhaps over-zealous quest for realism and finding the profound in the mundane.

Still, I am a dissenting voice among reviewers. Go along and see what you think. Just be aware that you’re in for a demanding night out. This is not an easy watch, and will be indigestible for those who have been reared on the cinematic fast food of the multiplexes.

Review 2: (Karen)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (director and co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan) was nominated for and won a swag of awards at various film festivals, but not many mainstream audiences will tolerate this slow, dark meditation on human nature. The opening sequence is telling: three men in an outpost on the Anatolian steppes are having a convivial evening together, eating, drinking and talking. They are seen through dirty panes of glass, and their conversation is muffled. We are on the outside looking in, and this, figuratively, is where we will stay for the rest of the story.

Well, at least we are in good company, as that is also the position of the main character, Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), whose observations and ruminations comprise most (but not all) of the film. It’s a road movie of sorts, where the main characters (doctor, police chief and underlings, prosecutor and suspects number 1 and 2) are together at the beginning, and play out the same scene at different desolate locations, with cold night winds and whispering trees providing a chilly and chilling backdrop. The doctor is witness to, and participates in some of, the conversations that occur along the way, at the various stopping places and in the car.

Long slow scenes and odd details give the impression of actual events remembered, and this is in fact the case: the story is based on the experience of one of the co-writers, Ercan Kesal. This is referred to in one of the roadside conversations, where the doctor, less than impressed by the events of the night, has it suggested to him that such an unusual scenario – going from place to place in the middle of nowhere, trying and failing to locate a buried murder victim – might one day be the basis of a good story to be told: “Once upon a time in Anatolia…”

However, the interest in the story is not in its narrative, but in the slow accretion of detail about the characters. The gist of it all is not surprising: bad guys are not all bad, and indeed their motivations can be noble, and good guys are imperfect too; people’s lives are complex – even apparently simple people’s; and it’s not always clear what the right course of action is.

These themes are well worn in literature (and film, and drama, even in soap opera) and are here addressed with some delicacy, and occasional flashes of humour. There’s a touch of the numinous too, with an extraordinary scene, for example, where the doctor is spooked by an encounter with a massive carved face, reminiscent – to me anyway, and certainly in the film evoking the sentiments – of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The sense of reminiscence, and of the felt gravitas of the experience, is heightened by a pivotal conversation between the doctor and the prosecutor, where it is not always clear if all the words spoken are voiced, or whether some are internal.

Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner)

Many issues are touched on through the revelation of small details of the characters’ lives and relationships, from the personal (family responsibilities and individual destiny) through work and social issues to politics and the morality of compromise. The lightness of that touch will be off-putting to many. Audiences may well emerge not quite knowing what to make of this film.

I for one felt that the culture depicted was so far out of my own experience that I missed whole layers of meaning. Just the fact that the men referred to one of their party as Arab Ali, Arab for short, was seriously weird for one who lives in a politically correct world. And when the police chief, rationalising rough treatment of the suspect in his custody, ranted about how “they” were different, was he referring to criminals, or Arabs? Was the suspect even an Arab? I didn’t know, couldn’t tell. But the theme of ethnicity may have had a bearing on the vignette in a village where the party stops for refreshment late at night.

And I get that this is a film about a man’s experience in a patriarchal society, but let’s be clear that the largely invisible women in the story are presented specifically as variously: a passive victim; a passive-aggressive victim who perpetrates the ultimate revenge; an idealised virgin whose beauty will go unappreciated by the wider world; a regretfully lost former wife (photograph only); and, yes, there’s a nurse in there somewhere who may utter a couple of words.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

6 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Movie Review”

  1. Great review, rolanstein.
    I think I have a higher boredom threshold than you, so I was happy to go along for the (long) ride, but like you I was wary because of the accolades this film has garnered. I don’t think it was too difficult to follow, although as I said it is entirely possible there was a whole layer of meaning I missed. Its great strength was, as you said, the extraordinarily haunting atmosphere Ceylan managed to (re)create; definitely had the whiff of dead-white-guy great literature about it too.
    And The Apple, ah yes. I laughed.

  2. I wasn’t bored, Karen, so much as struggling to stay with it because its s-l-o-w pace and sheer length taxed my powers of concentration, which needed to be trained intensely on the screen and dialogue to get the most out of the film.

    Thought you did a great job of your review. Especially like the point with which you conclude your intro para.

    Interesting that we coincided almost word-for-word on a couple of points, although evidently we took different things from the film.

    I am familiar with the dead-white-guy term, but don’t understand why you should have caught a whiff of it here – could you pls clarify?


  3. Dead white guys: you mentioned Chekhov, and I thought of Camus and Solzhenitsyn. Grand themes – mortality, destiny, etc (I want to put ect, a la Molesworth!) – in ordinary lives. Not so much of society and relationships. What I mean in relation to this film is that it reaches high. Sorry to use a throwaway term that could have sounded disparaging, when it mostly (I have to qualify it thus only because the depiction of women still irks me somewhat) isn’t.

  4. Ah, OK. I understood the term to be pejorative. Probably, erm, put me off the scent (to pick up where you left off figuratively).

    Anyway, 1am and all is well…

  5. Hello Karen. Where is Anatolia anyway? anatolia once I tolia a thousand times etc. I’m not going to see this movie. You’ve put me off. Thanks. I was looking for a review of Ice Age IV. See you. The postman.

  6. Hello postman. I’ll only telia once: it’s in Turkey. The film is not a turkey, nor probably is it your cup of tea. Have fun with Ice Age IV!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.