One ray of light emerges from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s earthly purgatory before being buried by a heavy load of human contradiction.
What are fairy tales if not elaborate distractions from monotony, epic lies we tell ourselves to pass the time and re-shape human nature’s darker complexities into something digestible? Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s haunting Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a police procedural about the procedures of miscommunication, understands both the resonance and fragility of this idea. Throughout the film’s lengthy running time, Ceylan contemplates the sudden collision of fantasy and reality within a world mired in delays. He creates a meandering breadcrumb trail of memories, gossip, distractions, and disagreements, all of which feed like a river into a subjective vision of a story meant to process what cannot be processed.
Set in the deep Anatolian countryside windswept by tradition and superstition, the film follows a mosaic of Turkish professionals—police officers, prosecutor, doctor, maintenance workers and soldiers—escorting a murder suspect to different locations looking for a body he disposed of nights before. Emphasizing long shots and overlapping diegetic sounds, Ceylan hypnotizes the viewer with aesthetic rhythms even as the narrative quickly becomes wearisome. Here, watching and listening are paramount. Windswept trees, babbling brooks and spitting fountains all creak with their own song as the men fruitlessly wait for the suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), to recognize the path.
Scene: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
If anything, Anatolia is a film that explores the way everyday experiences can become otherworldly, how the act of waiting can churn truth into hearsay, spawn new memories from the present encounter. One short scene midway through the film acts as a surreal reminder of Ceylan’s aesthetic intentions. Stopping to rest at the house of Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal), the mayor of a small village beset by financial anxieties, power outages and emigration, the group bunkers down to eat and drink tea. Kenan sits in the darkness with his captors when suddenly Mukhtar’s beautiful teenage daughter walks in holding a lantern and a tray of drinks. One by one, she hands them out to the various men, finally reaching Kenan.
Ceylan initially holds on Kenan’s face as he reacts to the girl’s presence. The criminal looks up as if he’s seen a lost friend, or perhaps a phantasm, unable to pull his gaze away from the lamp’s illuminating glow. Crickets chirp and dogs bark while the wind continues to howl. Ceylan then cuts to the reverse shot of the angelic girl from low angle, her face now awash in light, her skin a smooth reminder of youth in a film dirtied by age and regret. After a moment of hesitation, the girl moves on, leaving Kenan alone. Seemingly greatly affected by the presence of beauty followed by its immediate departure, Kenan begins to sob, only to look up and find Yasar, his victim, now very much alive receiving tea from the girl mere feet away. “Aren’t you dead?” Kenan asks. Yasar quietly drinks his tea, only to begin growing short of breath and gasping for air, suffocating slowly before his murderer’s eyes all over again.
The criminal looks up as if he’s seen a lost friend, or perhaps a phantasm, unable to pull his gaze away from the lamp’s illuminating glow.
In a film that feels possessed by the here and now, this scene is one of the few that represents a potential afterlife in Anatolia, albeit one rooted in supernatural ambiguity and stasis. But Ceylan so effortlessly melds them together it’s hard to see where one begins and the other ends. In Anatolia, purgatory on Earth and in the heavens co-exist in the details of daily life and human contradiction, no matter how many fairy tales we create to preach the contrary.