A few days into 2012, and we already have a favorite for the New Year’s best movie: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
Turkey’s leading filmmaker has several accomplished festival-friendly evocations of urban isolation to his credit—notably the city mouse–country mouse character study Distant (2002) and the pensive breakup not-quite-comedy Climates (2006). In themes and style, both films are evocative of early Antonioni; a 157-minute police procedural at once sensuous and cerebral, profane and metaphysical, “empty” and abundant, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is closer to the Antonioni of L’Avventura, and it elevates the 52-year-old director to a new level of achievement.
I first saw Once Upon a Time under less than optimal circumstances, as the last competition movie shown on the last night of last May’s Cannes Film Festival. It knocked me out, seemed even stronger on second viewing, and left me curious to see it again. The title suggests a shaggy-dog story or a fairy tale, or you could call it an epistemological murder mystery: Like several recent Romanian movies, Police, Adjective and Aurora (as well as the recently released Iranian hit A Separation), Once Upon a Time is a nominal genre film that, in the way that its narrative is delivered, invites the viewer to meditate on the nature of truth or the basis of knowledge.
It’s also, like Ceylan’s earlier films, an impeccably beautiful representation of the everyday—as demonstrated by the brief prologue, a slow, steady zoom through a service station’s dirt-encrusted window into a barren room where three guys, one of whom will perhaps be killed by the other two, eat and drink under the blind gaze of a blurry black-and-white TV. Cue the distant thunder—let the investigation begin. At once absurd road film and grand metaphor, the movie’s first third is a search for meaning in the void. A convoy of official cars drive by night through the barren countryside; they have two suspects in custody and are vainly seeking the spot (by a “round” tree) where they claim to have buried the third. “How do you know it’s not here?” one of the increasingly frustrated cops demands.
Everyone on this journey is a student of life. The futile quest and fruitless interrogation are paralleled by inane small talk among the various investigators as well as a series of fraught private conversations between the party’s two professionals—the glib prosecuting attorney and a self-effacing young doctor riding along as a witness to pronounce the corpse dead if found. Headlights illuminate the landscape and transform it into a near-empty stage. (As much as Once Upon a Time concerns the problems of deductive logic, it’s also movie about the quality of the light.) Midway through, in a scene of uncanny loveliness and material visions, the group pulls into a remote village for a late-night meal at the headman’s house. The night has given birth to a dream. Later, with the sky beginning to lighten over a hill as bleak as calvary, the searchers find that for which they have been searching (perhaps) and go about creating an official report complete with detailed descriptions and photographs of . . . what?
“There’s a reason for everything,” someone says unconvincingly, once back in the car. With the mission accomplished, in a somewhat farcical fashion, the film might have ended here. There is, however, a morning after. The corpse is brought back to town so that the doctor may perform an autopsy. The night of mystery is over. The evidence can now be pondered by the dawn’s dreary light. Procedure is followed. Still, however banal the daytime images, a metaphysical darkness remains—and even grows. Will the presumed widow identify the body? Can she? The autopsy begins, presenting more puzzling facts. Why is there dirt in the corpse’s lungs? What is dug up must again be buried.
A grand narrative yarn spun from a number of smaller ones, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia demonstrates the truism that the more we know, the less we understand. Or is it vice versa? Perhaps the greater understanding is admitting how little we can know.