Ceylan’s latest effort, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival this year, is a masterpiece and probably his best film. Not to mention his most accessible.
Diverging from his trademark stylistic and narrative minimalism, and also his grandiose and embellished visuals, this film is his most organic to date, and also a fertile playground for his ensemble cast to independently make use of their talents within a “Nuri Bilgi Ceylan universe.”
Thus, a collaborative effort by all means (the script was written by Ercan Kesal and Ceylan’s wife, Ebru Ceylan), “Anatolia” becomes an effective micro cosmos for the Turkish provinces. Speaking of which, this is a provincial portrayal where astute, long dialogues and soliloquies are key in understanding life in small rural towns as opposed to the morbid silence that we are used to expecting from Turkish films with such backgrounds.
Silence is always welcome, but it is also the words and what these words stand for -- or fail to accomplish -- that is what defines the stifling inertia and perhaps the communal interconnectedness (genuine or not) of the countryside.
It is the middle of the night, and a group of men are in search of a dead body on the Anatolian steppes. The search party comprises inspector Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan), who leads the investigation, doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), driver Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), main suspect Kenan (Fırat Tanış), a gendarmerie unit and a handful of other men who are present to assist.
Three cars travel through the steppes. There is no light, save for the headlights of the cars, and each location looks like the other. Kenan does not seem to remember where exactly he buried the body the other night, and the rest of the men get even more edgy as sleeplessness and the frustration of going in circles starts taking hold of each one of them.
Someone said that it was “not the destination but the journey” that ultimately matters. It might also be the case for this story. The never-ending drive gives the viewer a window to observe the dynamics of power between these men and their characters. The conversations they have during the drive seem trivial, almost absurd, in their everydayness, and thus ever more funny and comical, given the grave situation.
The audience cannot help but give a hard-earned chuckle in some scenes. But these trivialities are a mere gateway in showing how the smallest things can turn into a battle of wills. It is this battle of wills, this unrelenting obsession to be more “right,” to have the upper hand, that defines the driving force of these men and ultimately the patriarchal social structure with which they are instilled.
There are only two women featured in the film; neither of them has no lines, yet one is the symbol of “compassion,” more precisely of the “angel,” and the other one represents the “sinner,” or the woman who is supposedly the cause of the murder.
In the collective mind and memory of these men -- and the patriarchal, male-dominated system they live in -- women are not a part of the reality, or living human beings, but just notions that help men shape the ideas of themselves. The women are disassembled beings, as we either see them onscreen without a voice, in photographs, or merely hear their voices through a mobile phone. And yet, it is these missing women in this universe who are the causes of the men’s torments or their mistakes. According to those men, these grand romantic notions validate their self-importance.
The ensemble cast of the film is amazing, and all characters manage to contribute to the formation of a competitive camaraderie that is the framework of Ceylan’s film. Erdoğan’s performance in particular must be noted; he practically outdoes himself in the portrayal of the inspector. Birsel continues to prove that he is an A-list actor, and Uzuner, although he has been around for quite some time both in TV and on the silver screen, gets the chance to genuinely exhibit his abilities.
“Once Upon A Time in Anatolia” is proof that great cinema still exists. It proves that it is the trivial that molds the profound, the details that make up the big picture, and an endless terrain that pushes the human being into self confrontation.
This is a film that proves that the movie theater, not the TV screen, is still an invaluable part of our lives.
‘Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da’ (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Taner Birsel, Fırat Tanış