Review: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

The grand sweeping art movie – of the type produced by Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr and Zvyagintsev – adhere to formulas as rigid as those governing action films.

Vast, empty but beautifully photographed landscapes, long unbroken takes, doom-ladened air, allegorical stories that unfurl at a steady pace with cryptic dialogue.

With his fourth feature, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made a film to move him into the pantheon, yet seems to have done it while lightening up a bit.

The scope is mythic yet as down-to-earth as an episode of Casualty. Once Upon a Time is a masterly examination of what it is to be human but it is located in that most commercial of forms, a police procedural, albeit one with a limited amount of procedure.

Apart from a brief prologue, the events take place over the course of a single evening and following morning. A convoy of police cars and army trucks drive around the remote hills of Anatolia, central Turkey, trying to find the location in which a suspect claims to have buried the body of a missing man.


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The suspect though has problems remembering exactly where it is, all the various tree/fountain combinations looking much alike, which irritates the local police chief who is under pressure from a prosecutor.

Sure it is slow moving and serious, but also humorous and enthralling. In popular culture the gallows humour of police congregations gathered around a corpse has become a cheapened and shallow clich�, a callous sop to the audience, flattering them that they have been somehow exempted from this lottery.

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Ceylan gives gallows humour back its dignity, shows what it serves to the teller.

Even the best European art house fare invariably tests eyelid resolve – Tarkovsky helpfully included a five-minute midpoint nap break in Stalker. Ceylan includes a similar interlude, a dreamy period of rest and reflection as the team take a break from the search, but his film grips the attention for every one of its 157 minutes.

I'm normally a little sceptical of foreign language films that call themselves Once Upon a Time In; it always seems like hustle, a cheap allusion to better films.

This though carries the name proudly. It is a complete expression of the human experience from the philosophical abstract to the down-to-earth interest in what makes people tick.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (15)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmed Mumtaz Taylan and Firat Tanis

Length: 157 mins

*****

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