Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

One day, you may get a kick out of the stuff going on here.  When you have a family you’ll have a story to tell. Is that so bad?  You can say, ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia… when I was working out in the sticks… I remember this one night which began like this’.  You can tell it like a fairytale.

In the dark of night, three vehicles approach along a road that winds across a bare, windswept plateau, pinpoints of yellowish moving, floating light.  Coming to a halt beside the road, the men travelling in the convoy step out, two of them are handcuffed and have confessed to a murder; they are accompanied by an assortment of police, soldiers, two men with shovels, a public prosecutor and a doctor.  They are all searching for the scene of the crime, the place where the victim is buried.

This is the opening of the latest film from the Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, regarded as one of the greatest film makers of our time, and in the words of Philip French of The Observer, ‘a major force in reviving a belief in the kind of serious, ambitious, morally concerned European art-house cinema that was taken to new heights by Bergman, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Angelopoulos in the 1960s and 70s.’  For French, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ‘his finest work to date … a carefully controlled masterpiece’.

I find it a hard call to make: it’s a fine film – but then so are the three other films that have established his reputation – UzakClimates and Three Monkeys. Each of them displays Ceylan’s distinctive and evocative style: an intense Chekhovian exploration of interior lives combined with stunningly beautiful landscape photography.

The road winds on through the night – two-thirds of this long but engrossing film takes place in darkness that seems to materially reflect the mystery and confusion in which this group of men are, for a few hours, bound together.  The  accused men can’t remember where they buried the body in a landscape in which every bend in the road looks the same.  But while they search for a dead man, what preoccupies this group of men is less the dead than their own lives – the frustrations of work, their children, women and life’s disappointments – that they talk about endlessly as they travel the long and winding  road through the night.

There’s a lot of standing around talking in this film, the dialogue quite Pinteresque and comedic at times.  Take this exchange, as three of the men wait wearily while the others probe the darkness:

- So we’re all drunk and the tax officer walks off.
– That’s Nedim.
– Who?
– The tax officer at the time.
– No, it was Sinasi. Nedim came before him.
– Oh, yes. He’d throw back his head to talk. Fat and bald.
– Around two months after Mr. Galip arrived he got posted somewhere else.
– Well, he goes off with the waiters. And they come back with three trays.  See a tray and what do you think?
– Kebabs.
– You’d think kebabs. Meat. But no!. It’s yoghurt.
– What kind of yoghurt?
– Not the soupy kind we know. It’s hard as rock. You need a knife to cut the stuff.
– Sure it wasn’t cheese, chief?
– Cheese?  You think I don’t know yoghurt from cheese, doctor?  What do you take me for?
– That stuff”s delicious, doctor. Especially in spring.
– No, it was yoghurt. But buffalo yoghurt.  Not sheep or whatever, buffalo yoghurt.
– They have buffalo stuff at the dairy down from our quarters.
– Where is there a dairy?
– Down from our quarters, sir.
– Which quarters are you in? What dairy?
– You know that dairy below our quarters?
– By Kivircik’s place?
– Yes, sir.  They sometimes make it there.
– That stuff”s pasteurized!
– No, it’s buffalo. I’ve tried it.
– It kind of smelled.
– It smells if it’s good.
– Buffalo yoghurt.. Wouldn’t I know if they had it at the corner shop?
– I’m crazy about the stuff.
– To be honest, chief, you don’t know.
– I tried it. But it just seemed to smell a bit.
– Because it’s good. The animals eat fresh grass in spring, right, doctor?
– Arab, some people have no taste for the good things.  I mention buffalo yoghurt and the guy says it smells.
– He doesn’t know the real thing. What’s he used to?
– Pasteurized. You can get pasteurized from any shop.
– No, chief. My deceased mother used to make it.
– They can’t make it like that now.
– You know, I see stuff sometimes that really bugs me.
– In the supermarket. ‘Skimmed’ yoghurt. What the hell is that?
– ‘Skimmed’ yoghurt. You’d be ashamed to write the words.

Exchanges like this don’t upset the overall mood of men oppressed by having to complete an arduous task out of office hours in a dark and hostile landscape, but arise naturally  – as they do when a group of men are thrown together for several hours with nothing but their own conversation to stave off boredom. William Boyd once wrote that Chekhov’s greatness lay in his abandonment of the ‘event plot’ for something more ‘blurred, interrupted, mauled or otherwise tampered with by life’ and that it is exactly the mood that Ceylan creates in his film.

At its heart, this is a film about men, and about how these men see women.  These men, passing the night together, are haunted by thoughts of women.  Only two female characters appear briefly on screen (one in the film’s most memorable and Tarkovskyan scene), while another never appears but is discussed at length.  The film ends with an autopsy of a male corpse, but for the rest of its length Ceylan has performed a dissection of the male psyche.

There’s the irascible police officer, Naci, ‘a handful of bees, as my mother would say, all noise and no action’.  Frustrated with the accused man’s failure to locate the place where the body is buried, he starts to beat him.  The prosecutor intervenes: ‘Is this how we’ll get into the European Union? No way!’

The prosecutor remarks to the doctor how difficult it has been to make sense of many of the cases that he has had to deal with over the years.  Sometimes, he thinks, you have to be more of an astrologer than a prosecutor to divine motives and causes.  Most mysteriously, he recounts the story of a woman who, five months after giving birth, died on the exact day she predicted she would, without any signs at all of ill health or self-harm.

Another police officer, Arab, consoles himself with the thought that their long night might one day become a fairy tale they will be able to tell their family: ‘Once Upon A Time In Anatolia’.

At times they become philosophical:

- We none of us live forever, do we, doctor?
– The Prophet Solomon. He lived to 750. Gold, jewels..
– Well, he died in the end too.  Right, doctor?
- It’s raining on Igdebeli.
- Let it.  It’s been raining for centuries. What difference does it make?
- But not even 100 years from now, Arab, neither you, me, the prosecutor or the police chief..
- Well, as the poet said…Still the years will pass.. And not a trace will remain of me.  Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul..

But as well as the conversation there is the film’s haunting imagery. Once again, Ceylan has worked with cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki to create moments seem to speak, as in a film by Tarkovsky, of the ineffable, of things just beyond our understanding:  a gust of wind blows turmoil through the branches of a tree; a flash of lightning illuminates stone carvings in the rocks by the road; an apple falls and is slowly carried down a stream.

The film’s most hypnotic, hallucinatory passage comes when, deep in the night, the convoy halts at an isolated and decrepit village where the mukhtar plays host with food and drink – and wastes no time in lobbying for his pet project. He wants money to fix the cemetery wall and build a morgue. The village, he explains, has suffered from emigration.  There’s only old folk left.  But when someone dies, he says, ‘We have a lot of relatives in Germany.  They want to come and see the body.  You get them on the phone saying, ‘Don’t bury dad, I have to kiss him’. Fine, but the man smells. Where are you going to kiss him?’

The wind gets up and the power fails.  At the mukhtar’s bidding his beautiful young daughter brings light and tea to each man in turn.  It’s a stunning and beautifully filmed moment of epiphany for each of the men.  The murderer, entranced by the face of the girl, suddenly sees his victim sitting in the room among them.  For the prosecutor, the moment  impels him to recall again with the doctor the mystery of the woman who died on the day she envisioned.

From this point on, the film focuses increasingly on the character of the doctor. He is portrayed as a rationalist with a strictly logical approach to life, whether discussing male problems of the prostate or probing the superstitious implications of the prosecutor’s story. Indeed, in the latter part of the film, the idea that an action and its motives can be pinned down with the precision of official phrases is pursued to its surreal and comical conclusion, first as the prosecutor dictates his report in classic bureaucratic phrases to a police officer who types on a laptop as he crouches in a field, then as the doctor conducts the autopsy while his findings are recorded in a similar manner.

But something unsettles the doctor. Divorced and childless, he gazes out of the window, watching the murdered man’s wife and son walk away down a track while kids kick a ball around on a playground. Behind him, the autopsy assistant, noisily removes, weighsn and describes the parts that used to be a man.  The doctor makes a decision that may be an act of mercy, and omits crucial information from his report.

For Bilge Ebiri, writing on his They Live By Night blog, Anatolia is a film of staggering ambition, even for this director:

Stylistically, narratively, and thematically, the second half of the film is the opposite of the first: the prosecutor takes statements, the doctor conducts an autopsy, townspeople react to the news of the killing and the death. The mythical gives way to the mundane; the mystery of death is gone, replaced instead with its physical and social consequences. And a film that began in the enveloping, sensuous darkness of a dream ends in the cold, hard light of the painfully real, and it’s up to us to determine where eternity lies.

So, although Ceylan’s film may have had all the characteristics of a police procedural, unlike more conventional examples of the genre we are left with no clear answers.  There has been a journey from darkness to light, dawn has broken and a town awakes.  But we are left to ponder motives and mores.  Jugu Abraham, writing on his blog Movies That Make You Think, makes this interesting point:

Anatolia is an ancient name for much of modern Turkey. It is the name associated with much of Turkey from the days of Alexander the Great. What is important for the viewer to note and reflect on is that Ceylan chose the term Anatolia rather than Turkey, when the tale he presents is of modern day Turkey, of individuals and mindsets that are not historical but contemporary. Perhaps for Ceylan and co-sciptwriters (comprising his wife Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kasal, the very same team that wrote the brilliant Three Monkeys) the mindset and values have not changed with time and  perhaps for them modern Turkey is no different from Anatolia of the ages past.

There’s a moment when the prosecutor says: ‘You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father. It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults’.  For Jugu Abraham, Ceylan’s  film represents the melancholy story of Anatolia through the ages repeated in each generation.

But in the end there are no answers to the questions raised in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  The story is inconclusive. Instead, Ceylan often films the doctor’s face in close-up, watching this thoughtful man in the act of thinking.  As Virginia Woolf wrote:

These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. … Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic – lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed – we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Chekhov, we need a very daring and alert sense … to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.

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