At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Ceylan’s rich, contemplative crime movie.
Open skies, rolling hills, long roads ribboning into the distance; Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia references more than just the name of Sergio Leone’s 1968 epic spaghetti-western. Ostensibly a crime movie, the film functions as a visual and structural tale, telling more in the meditation on its physical environment and the richness of its characters than in its limited narrative scope. What narrative Anatolia does contain follows a road trip by a team investigating a murder case, comprised of the lead police investigator Comissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), government legal official Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), medical examiner Dr Cemal (Yilmaz Erdogan) and two carloads of sundry others (drivers, diggers, police officers, army soldiers, etc.) Directing their elongated journey is prime suspect and confessed killer Kenan (Firat Tanis), along with his accomplice brother.
The film opens with a close-up exterior of a window; muted sounds of people talking inside the building. As the shot zooms in you can see the blurred people moving about inside, as for a long time the director holds the camera’s focal point on the window itself. Eventually the focus resolves onto the inhabitants of the room, though interestingly the sound remains fixed outside of the building with roadside sounds audible in the foreground contrasted with the muffled sounds of dialogue from people we can now see clearly. I think this scene, coupled with the film’s title, are key to interpreting the director’s objective with Anatolia.
The “Once Upon a Time…” construction strongly evokes the language of folk story and fable, whereas the motif of the window as both viewing mechanism and separator suggests the idea of looking in from the outside; both seeing and hearing, but not necessarily understanding or truly connecting. Less concerned with the details of the case—though enough of these emerge over the two and half hour runtime to piece together a sequence of events—Ceylan and his writing team draw our attention to the stories of the individual characters; tales that give them dimension, and a sense of ‘place’, in the film and in their (and the film’s) setting—namely, Anatolia. Through these people, we are enabled (and encouraged) to build a picture of this place which doubles as the film’s title.
Visually, Ceylan is in good form despite a noticeable departure from his last two high profile efforts, Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008). Prolific, photo-still, crisp HD detail close-ups are foregone for a more open aesthetic. Plenty of long takes with long shots soak up the landscape and combine with slow pacing to encourage viewers to really observe the frame; visual perambulation even as the narrative meanders in organic directions. Ceylan cleverly utilises mise-en-scène as a nod to various auteur luminaries without ever damaging the tonal integrity of the film. For instance, there is an extended dialogue sequence shot inside a car, comically loaded to its brim with a number of burly men, which could have come straight out of a piece of Kaurismaki deadpan. Likewise, an extended shot of an apple rolling down a hillside into a river, then, pregnant with foreboding, floating downstream evokes thoughts of Tarkovsky for both its visual impact and metaphoric potential.
In terms of structure, the film plays as if in two parts—though the dividing line is not completely clear—and has a meandering though purposeful construction. Where his earlier Climates, for example, was distinctly chaptered and led along by the meteorological seasons, Anatolia feels more like a film that is making its way from one end of a field to another; the beginning and end points are clear enough but the course is organically arrived at as the characters interact. This is borne out in the narrative when the group is deciding what to do at a late hour. Several key characters discuss whether to take a break, and if so, where to take it. Visually, changes of direction are handled smartly. A couple of times I noticed the camera suddenly switching direction, apparently deciding to follow another character, which signallied a change in narrative lead as well as physical direction.
With Anatolia, Ceylan has laid on a rich visual and contemplative feast with a meticulously considered menu, and has given the audience visual and temporal space to attend to it. It is no wonder the ever-enamoured Cannes jury divided the 2011 Grand Prix honours between Anatolia and the Dardennes’ excellent The Kid with a Bike (also at NZIFF 2011). Just as it is no wonder New Zealand International Film Festival programmers continue to select Ceylan’s films when available. Fantastic stuff.