When I was in military service at an old NATO listening post on Turkey’s Georgian border, I was tasked with accompanying a chronic deserter to an army hospital in the near-by eastern town of Erzurum for psychiatric evaluation. He had run away from a 15-month tour of duty a whopping five times, and unless he got a note from the army shrink saying he was generally unfit to serve, he would be facing serious jail time. This was an 18-year-old, shy but kind, kid, and the commanders realised this, too, so they were trying to get him out, but had to go through all the bureaucratic procedures. When the Major assigned me to deliver him to Erzurum, I was ecstatic: any shift from the norm was welcome, since military service can be an awfully monotonous experience.
A surprise was waiting for me when we arrived. The receptionist told us that the resident psychiatrist was on leave, and I was given orders to take the kid to the central military hospital in Ankara. This was a 25-hour train ride through the Anatolian heartland, and what’s even better is I was given the responsibility to look after four other soldiers due for psych evaluation, who had come to Erzurum on similar grounds from other neighbouring units. The Last Detail this was not. It turned out to be the most interesting 25 hours of my military service, if not my life.
One of my charges was a Kurd and had deserted twice. He had Kurdish separatist inclinations, all of which he only unveiled over the course of the interminable train ride. Another one never quite made the transition from civilian to military life, and in three months had put on 45 kg, no mean feat given the quality of food served by the Turkish military. The third one was a 22-year-old from Manisa, an industrial town in Western Anatolia, was deemed to have suicidal tendencies. If I passed gas like him, I, too, would have thought of killing myself: he stank up the whole compartment with his loud and noxious farts. Finally, our party of losers included a 17-year-old from Erzurum who had tagged along with us; he would be joining the army a year later, but his parents were desperate for him to get a stay from service since he was flat-footed. I could see why. The kid had either Asperger’s or was high-functioning autism, and, man, the first three months in boot camp would have killed him.
Everyone shared their stories; in a bizarre way, it was almost like group therapy. We would never see each other again, so I suppose we felt comfortable sharing our deepest fears and insecurities. The Kurd shared how he’d run away from home as a kid; when he got back six months later, his father beat the living crap out of him: he was hospitalised for weeks. The human stink bomb from Manisa talked about how he’d been bullied since childhood, and the bullying had seemingly carried over into his army service.
As for me, I’d grown up in Europe for 15 years and had to come back for military service, a stranger in my own country and as far as I could be from friends and comforts of the UK. At first my fellow soldiers could barely relate – they only wondered about how easily can get laid in the west. But eventually it became apparent how military service stripped us all of our sense of home and security, all of us aliens amidst the Anatolian backwoods. But as we rode through the vast Anatolian steppe, punctuated in the night by the flickering of lights from towns far ahead or occasional farms and plantations during the day, the country itself took on a character of its own. This impersonal expanse of nature surrounded us, even embraced us.
I was reminded of this journey as I watched Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and not because the very train we took from Erzurum to Ankara is featured in the background of one scene, a beam of light that rips through the Anatolian landscape as a group of officials search for the body of a recently murdered man. Ceylan’s latest is an acute and mysterious and empathetic study of the human condition, built around a slow-burning crime procedural with touches of incisive humour hitherto absent in the master’s canon. I loved it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s opening shot foreshadows the ambiguity of the rest of the film. Ceylan likes to kick off his films with intense images to grab the viewer (see this great post by Vadim Rizov), and Anatolia is no exception. The director’s background as a still photographer and his keen eye for composition offer shots of such awe-inspiring beauty that the forest might very well be left unseen for the trees. This is a film that requires serious concentration, and the dichotomy of the images themselves and the narrative only prove that it must be seen multiple times for full comprehension (not unlike Michael Haneke’s Cache, for example, with which this superior film has one or two motifs in common).
The camera opens on a blurry window, with flickering yellows and oranges behind, and it zooms slowly as we start to hear the incomprehensible rabble raised by the muddied figures, whose silhouettes start coming into view. Eventually, we realise it’s three men slouching over a make-shift table; two of them are drinking Raki, the favoured choice of booze for us Turks, and the third a can of Coke (this detail later leads to one of the funniest deliveries of any line in the history of Turkish cinema). One of the boozers has his back towards us: he’s rambunctious and almost-aggressive, and the other boozer, with a thin chin hidden behind a five-day stubble and surrounded by greasy hair, listens intently with squinty eyes. Knowing the rudimentary set-up of Three Monkeys, I expected him to lash out. But, eventually, the punch line comes, and the three men burst out in laughter. What was the story? A joke? Or the tale of a former conquest? The sound is never clear, and we never know.
The following scene – and, no, I will not recap the film, but I feel these initial two scenes are crucial to what comes after, both thematically and formally – is a wide shot of the Anatolian steppe at dusk, just outside of Kirikkale, a smallish town to the south-east of the capital Ankara. An undulating road divides a hill, and, as the sun goes down, we see three orbs of light, and as they get close, we realise they are the high beams from two cars and a gendarmerie jeep. The vehicles stop in front of a stonework fountain, not an unusual site in central Anatolia. People get out, we spot a police chief as he asks a man in handcuffs slightly disorienting questions, both for the suspect and the audience. Ceylan keeps his camera steady on a hill, with the dying sun and the beams of light from the cars – apparently – the only two sources of light. The road is almost central to the frame, and the players are scattered around it, but never quite venturing too far out of line in either way. It’s a scene of mesmerising beauty and portent.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ostensibly about the search for the body of the man from the first scene (Yaşar Eraslan), with the other two as the suspects (Fırat Tanış as Kenan, apparently the main culprit; and Burhan Yıldız as Ramazan, his portly, buffoonish younger brother). The film eventually ends with an autopsy but the whole endeavour itself is akin to an autopsy of the human condition: what makes us tick, the consequences of our actions, whether we ever truly make a difference in the world, and, if we do, is it a decent one? Even though Ceylan works on the broadest canvas here of any of his films, ironically, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia turns out to be his most insular, dare I say, personal, work.
On this journey that spans around 18 hours, we meet a host of characters, soldiers, workmen, drivers, but three take the centre stage: Naci, the police chief (Yılmaz Erdoğan, a massive star in Turkey); Nusret, the prosecutor (Taner Birsel); and Cemal, the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner). Through the quest to first find out the whereabouts of the body, and then the long, strenuous bureaucracy that culminates in its autopsy, we follow these three men, all flawed, all human, dealing with the case at hand, the infinite Anatolian plateau and their own personal demons.
This is a slow, yet determined, film. The various beats identifying yet a new place where the body might have been buried, and then for the party to be proven wrong once again, are not repetitive. Instead, they offer a sort of Sisyphean vibe to the proceedings. The lack of closure, and the seemingly increasing distance at each failed juncture, provides the characters with all the more reason for introspection. Ceylan, and his trusted DP Gökhan Tiryaki, illuminate the night-time scenes with the high-beams from the cars, the effect adding to the sense of emotional bankruptcy and general despondency. When dawn breaks, and the body is eventually found, the colours are muted still: the yellows and oranges of the Central-Anatolian plane eventually giving way to the dull crimson of the thatched roofs of a nearby village and the wan blues and greys of a country hospital.
Ceylan’s propensity to stay focused on shots with landscapes that drown the characters in foreground remain, though he is even more meticulous here with his close-ups than he was in Three Monkeys. He studies every dimple, every scar on his actor’s faces, never letting go until the characters themselves are willing to yield the scene. It is a bold move for a film that is driven so much by dialogue, once again unique for a Ceylan film. The dialogue is authentic to a tee: most Turkish films sound like they were written by hipsters sipping tea in a trendy café in Cihangir (kind of like the Williamsburg, Brooklyn of Istanbul). That’s because most of them are. The verisimilitude of the dialogue in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia can only be fully appreciated by those fluent in Turkish, and if you aren’t, I feel sorry for you. No amount of translation could do justice to the glory of those lines by Ceylan, his wife Ebru, and frequent collaborator Ercan Kesal.
But this attention to detail in a script and magnificent direction require the same sort of excellence from the actors: otherwise such earnestness faces the risk of collapse. But all the leads bring out their A-game. Erdoğan manages to create out of his police chief, unhappy at home and neglectful of his terminally sick child, a totally sympathetic figure, seeking solace from work rather than facing his own demons. Birsel’s Nusret seems to harbour his own secret, and it is not through dialogue but his reactions that Birsel tells the prosecuter’s story (as per John Wayne, all acting is reacting). The moral centre of the film is the doctor Cemal from Istanbul, trudging in the backwoods and trying so hard to forget about his ex-wife: his silence, his repressed sorrow, his frustrations against how he ended up where he did, speak volumes. Uzuner’s perofmance is reminiscent of Donatas Banionis’ in Tarkovsky’ Solaris. I must also single out the co-writer Kesal, whose on-screen turn as the mayor is a character to behold, sort of like a transmogrified Fyodor Karamazov for central Anatolia. His is one of my favourite performances of the past few years.
In fact, the film owes a lot to Dostoyevski, with crime and the punishment to come, key factors in the way characters act, whether or not they are “guilty.” Each and every person seems to be their own judge, jury, and executioner. Ceylan is also a fan of Chekhov, and there are moments, especially earlier in the film, that would not stand out in latter-day Chekhov plays.
Tarkovsky’s influence is also apparent, as ever, but, this time, Ceylan seems to have turned to Terrence Malick when shooting nature. The colours and the composition when the dawn breaks are errily reminiscent of Days of Heaven. Similarly, the bumbling bureaucracy of the latter parts of Anatolia bring to mind recent works by Romanian hotshots Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristian Mungiu, enveloping, as they do, little men in large webs of utter pointlessness.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a film of multitudes. It refuses to give answers; opting, instead, to present the viewer with a cornucopia of complex characters and emotions. It never strays; there is not one single shot too many. It is superbly acted, wonderfully written, and immaculately shot. It is a masterpiece.
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. He also writes regularly for IndieWire’s PressPlay blog and The House Next Door.