In the first sequence of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, we see three men sat around a dingy lowly lit room talking.
The shot is hazy and slightly obscured by what turns out to be a dirty window.
The man in the centre of the group slowly becomes detached from the conversation and is taken over by a blank stare towards the camera – a stare that penetrates the screen and implicates us somehow in the scene.
This fleeting moment of voyeurism is integral to the role director Nuri Bilge Ceylan wants us to play. As the camera stares we stare – the director wants us to look seriously at this film, at the characters; to involve ourselves with them and to empathise with their contemplations. They think; we think; the film thinks.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia demands patience; the action trundles along at a snail’s pace. However, the pace is essential to the story that director Ceylan wants to tell, and once settled and accustomed to it the film becomes almost irresistible.
The basic plot outline is of a small convoy of police, a prosecutor and a doctor, being taken to the shallow grave of a murdered man by his murderer and an accomplice in the middle of the night.
The only problem is that one claims to have been drunk at the time, and the other asleep, thus finding the body proves to be difficult. However, this is inconsequential to what is really going on with this film.
Ceylan peers into the human psyche as the group comes face to face with evil and are forced into deep contemplation. We live with these characters, feeling distinctly and fixedly what they experience.
Shots stare and linger in long heart breaking close-ups, and, even though for the most part they remain stoic, we feel their inner world is in turmoil as they face the unfathomable: man’s evil unto man.
Ceylan manages to pack the film with manifold musings on various topics such as death, mysticism, women, beauty and masculinity; and much is made of a recurring conversation between the prosecutor and the doctor, which revolves around a woman who predicted her own death.
It has to be said though, that with female roles being very minor – only one word is uttered by a female character – the world the film creates is seen resolutely from a man’s perspective.
The dialogue is kept sharp and is laden with comedic moments that highlights group dynamics, the inefficiency of bureaucracy, and at times a mordant black humour, which, in spite of the film’s lurid subject, does not seem out of place.
The cinematography of this film cannot go without mention – every shot looks and feels like an oil painting (at least for the first two hours) and it’s hard at times to draw one’s eyes away to sufficiently concentrate on the subtitles.
The majority of the film is shot using heavy chiaroscuro lighting, which is achieved by setting the darkness of the countryside with car headlights or candlelight. The effect this has on the colour of the film speaks for itself.
The cinematographer, Gokhan Tiryaki, works wonders with the colour yellow. Headlights glare brightly through the screen and feel like they are on top of us; and a sequence where the mayor’s daughter, after the men have stopped off for a break in his village, hands out some tea stays with you long after you leave the cinema.
Rain, wind, lightening, slow motion and long silences are also used to enhance the atmosphere, which grips us from the start, and along with the cinematography and acting, come together to create the general tenor of solemnity the film wants to convey.
The only criticism is that the ending feels slightly drawn out and maybe would’ve benefitted from being shorter. It feels like Ceylan is labouring the point a bit when, for example, during the autopsy scene, it feels like the prosecutor gives off at least a ten minute sigh.
But behind it lie big questions, and, like the prosecutor, all we can do is look and sigh at the unfathomability of it all; at our inability to articulate a cogent answer in the face of the ineffable.
Overall this film is a visual treat and is well worth investing in the two-and-a-half hours it demands.
See Once Upon a Time in Anatolia at Manchester's Cornerhouse. Visit here for details.