Eerie, tragic, and assured, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an engrossing, slow-burning police procedural, as if the offspring of a marriage between Zodiac, Mother, and Béla Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky. An existential inquiry set in a remote dreamscape of disquiet, it uses a matter of life and death to scrutinize human nature and the mystical effect of women on men. It’s CSI as written by Anton Chekhov: nothing happens, everyone talks.
The story revolves around the investigation into the location of a corpse. In the middle of the night, a country doctor, Cemal; a police commissioner, Naci; and a local prosecutor, Nusret, drag a stringy-haired miscreant named Kenan into the impressive scenery of the Anatolian steppes. Kenan has already confessed to killing someone in a stupid dispute and promised to lead the authorities to the body. But the wilderness proves baffling, and it’s not clear how well Kenan remembers the crime.
Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates, Three Monkeys) makes the search chillingly difficult to come to terms with. Containing a patent salute to Blue Velvet, it’s a film with emotionally layered characters and an indelible atmosphere of unease. Mythical and mystical, it makes no allowances, steadily assuming elements of The Canterbury Tales and The Odyssey. Cemal, Naci, and Nusret are disillusioned, reticent individuals who no longer think about the future, because they obsess about the past.
This is confident filmmaking of a high caliber, mature, sophisticated, and abstract. With adamant flair, Ceylan’s camera waits and watches like a vulture, menacing beyond the frame. The widescreen images of barren landscapes betray unbelievable cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki. It’s easy to forget that half of it takes place in inky blackness. Stories return and are embellished, including a deft discussion on the nature of suicide (“Aren’t most suicides intended to punish someone else?”) and the circumstances that can lead to the justification of falsehood.
The culmination of the group’s journey arrives after sixty-five minutes, where they are served in a poor and remote village. It’s an ironic epiphany during a power failure: the mayor’s daughter – an angelic vision of dumb-striking loveliness, lit by a flickering lamp – passes into the men-crowded room, carrying a tray of tea glasses that rattle like a peasant Mozartian melody. Outside, a storm glowers; inside, people mend the fraying pieces of their souls. Beauty appears, plain and nature-gifted, so commanding that it could cause hallucinations. The scene is cinema of sterling sorcery.
Built out of paradoxes, like a machine made of incompatible parts, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a thriller that doesn’t thrill and a puzzle that barely unravels. It’s cinema as autopsy. Yet it’s complex, cerebral, smoldering, and genre-defying. Its glacial and tectonic pacing is broken up by imperceptible moments and unflinching observations, and its regal discipline buttresses the oblique denouement. If it hearkens to Stalker and The Turin Horse and withers slightly in their glare, well, we can’t be anything but delirious with the results of such an effort.