Nuri Bilge Ceylan | 2hr 37min
Through a nocturnal Turkish countryside of rolling hills and open fields, three cars wind their way around barren slopes in single file, piercing the darkness with their bright headlights. The harsh glare invades the beautiful natural scenery with a penetrating observation, as if trying to expose some grim, hidden secret. Inside these cars is a group of professionals – police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor, some grave diggers, and armed forces, all being guided by two suspects who have murdered and buried a man somewhere in the rural regions of Central Anatolia.
The identity of the victim and the killers’ motivations remain elusive for much of the film, as do the personal trials of the prosecutor and doctor who speak of their own lives in oblique ways. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is in no rush to deliver the answers we seek in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the pay offs are often subtle, but sure enough, this quietly languid narrative eventually pulls each story together in a meditation on sin, regret, and the passing of one’s transgressions onto the next generation.
In the gorgeous long shots of cars following twisted roads and disappearing behind curved hillsides, one is particularly reminded of a similar visual conceit used in Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, another barebones piece of minimalist cinema in which a man drives through the Iranian countryside searching for a stranger to assist him in his suicide. A series of discussions inside a car similarly provide the philosophical framework through which both director-writers contemplate death, all the while teasing the possibility of an actual corpse making an appearance on the other end.
For all its intelligent scripting though, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does not possess the same succinctness or efficiency as Kiarostami’s film. In its first half, it deliberately meanders from one site to the next as one of the suspects, Kenan, leads the men on a trail of guesses as to where he buried the body. The painstaking precision of the investigation can be trying, dwelling on details that carry little to no emotional weight, and yet every now and then Ceylan breaks through the monotony of these conversations with a delicate flourish of style and symbolism. As one character shakes a tree branch, an apple falls onto the hillside, rolls into a stream, and drifts away. It is the first major break from the film’s main narrative, and as it gets stuck at a dam where several other apples are rotting away, it calls to mind both the forbidden fruit of original sin, and the journey of every living thing arriving at the same inevitable location where so many others have terminated before.
In this manner, Ceylan imbues his film with a sense of mysticism that hangs in the air. Later when the men stop over at the mayor’s house to eat, the power goes out, but not long after this happens his daughter enters the room carrying a tray of tea and an oil lamp that lights up her face like a holy angel. Her quiet, graceful presence moves each of them deeply, but none more so than Kenan who begins to cry. As discussions around children being punished for their parents’ sins develop, she stands for an untainted image of purity over whom they mourn, wracked with sorrow for what she may have to suffer. Earlier in the film one police officer remarks with a hint of sarcasm that this night might be looked back on like a fairy tale, and although there is little whimsy to be found here, Ceylan’s collection of archetypal characters and symbols certainly lends itself to a fable-like reading of his existential narrative.
Just as the unearthing of a human body exposes the relevance of such questions to the killer’s life, so too does the exhumation of other secrets via adjacent allegories and off-hand conversations reveal the scope of generational sin through the rest of the ensemble. Kenan’s feud with another man over the true paternity of a 12-year-old boy is revealed to be the motivation for his drunken murder, yet in the act he also ostracises and traumatises his son. The police chief answers a call from his furious wife who is caring for their sick child, though he ignores her pleas and keeps on working. A tale that the prosecutor narrates about a woman who predicted the exact date of her death is revealed to possess hidden depths relating to his own infidelity, ultimately destroying his daughter’s chance at a normal family life. As he tells his new confidant:
“It’s the kids who suffer in the end, doctor. Everyone pays for the things they do. But kids pay for the sins of adults.”
With this in mind, the divorced, childless doctor who is so dedicated to the objectivity of science cannot help twisting a small piece of evidence in the autopsy room to save the victim’s son from the traumatic knowledge of his father’s true fate. As he gazes out his window at the wife and boy, we also notice a small bloodstain on his cheek. Perhaps there is a little piece of himself that identifies with that lifeless cadaver lying on the operating table, with no partner or child. It is remarkable that even in spite of these characters’ melancholy journeys towards existential enlightenment, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is still so elegant in its formal progression, bringing together an ensemble of flawed, shame-filled men over twelve life-changing hours.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is currently streaming on Mubi and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.