The Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia screens once at the 49th New York Film Festival, this Saturday at 5:30pm. Distributor Cinema Guild will open the film at Film Forum on January 4.
The title of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—a film about an investigation into a murder that’s already been solved—comes from a police officer and doctor’s conversation, staring off into the middle distance while colleagues root around in a field looking for the corpse, agonizingly bored, waiting for the rain or a call to action or something: later on, when you have grandkids, you can tell them about this murder case you worked on, once upon a time in Anatolia. This extraordinary film, running about two and half hours, is deliberately larded with anticlimax, black comedy, slapstick, bureaucratic diddling, and human pretension—all surrounding moments of unsettling beauty and inadvertent revelation.
The first shot after the title card is a long-shot view of the hills, illuminated in places by the goldish headlights of a three-car convoy, who stop near a roadside fountain; as we begin in medias res, what gradually emerges, in stop after stop near identical landscapes, is that the cars hold a local police chief and his subordinates; state troopers; the local doctor; the regional prosecutor; hired hands; and two bound men, who are leading everyone to the body of the man they murdered—if they can remember where they buried him. (The murderers are two brothers; the older one, it’s been observed—I’m sorry, but I think somebody needs to put this into a review for posterity—bears a striking resemblance to sometime L film critic Vadim Rizov.) Through the night, cars threaten to break down, the prosecutor takes multiple pee breaks (in the other car, the chief asks the doctor about his own prostate), the cops talk about their domestic situations and different types of yoghurt.
Both the police chief and the prosecutor consider themselves wordly, experienced men: the chief, whose disabled son is alluded to, repeats his acquired wisdom so frequently it degrades, and pontificates about the nature of evil to whoever will listen, getting so carried away that he gets het up about the murder investigation and starts whaling on one of the perps; the prosecutor strokes his mustache, crinkles his eyes and tries to impress the doctor with stories of life’s inscrutability (in dialogues parceled out through the movie, the doctor recognizes the story as a confession puffed up into a parable; the shattered prosecutor attempts to act manfully impressed).
The only one in the movie—aside from the murderer—who doesn’t cheapen the investigation with incessant reflection, the doctor is recently divorced, but that hardly explains his supreme world-weariness (the actor, Muhammet Uzuner, is watchful and alert, never overselling sadness). At one point, as the doctor’s taking a leak under some rocks, a bolt of lightning illuminates a huge face carved into the rock—Ceylan, whose previous films demonstrated a mastery of color and composition for digital photography, shoots all the faces like they’re statues, bronzed close-ups filling the widescreen frame, and then giving way to long windblown grass or, in one especially memorable shot, an apple that rolls down a hill, into a stream (a cop had shaken the branch of a tree to bring down a snack).
The long dark night of the soul is punctuated by a stop in a nearby village, where the cops and killers sit around a couple communal tables, the chief joshing his fellow-officers, and the village mayor’s municipal complaints vaguely suggesting a wasting-away of rural life; his beautiful daughter, an afterthought in his litany, hands out tea by candlelight, and a couple of the men, now isolated one by one in the frame, are almost brought to years. The village sequence does what the movie does, salvaging profundity from a sea of specific, often knowingly hilarious banality—but as a sideways interlude, a miniature version of the movie branching off from it.
In the clarity of the morning after, everyone assembles in same shot in the field where, finally, the body lies, hogtied in a shallow grave. The prosecutor, in his element, narrates a crime scene report (once his assistant can set up a stool to sit on), describing the body’s positioning, the corpse’s clothes, and cracking a joke while a cop picks a couple of gourds, the hired men blame each other for forgetting the body bag, and Ceylan brings out the fact of death in the raw, wet air.
Ceylan narrows his focus onto the doctor, the only character capable of really carrying off a meaningful ending, upon the return to town. He practically sleepwalks through the autopsy, watching the victim’s widow and son out the window as his assistant bitches about the low-quality medical equipment—with a perfectly calibrated, perhaps outsized deliberation, Ceylan films in real time the surface of life and its deeper undercurrents.