Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia takes place on a single night with events taking us into the morning. A team of policemen look for the body of a missing man in the Anatolian hills with the help of a man claiming to have murdered him. What follows is a slow burning meditation on life and death, a tale of corruption and sin, family, and desensitisation. Ceylan's film covers much ground in its 150minutes but does so effortlessly and deceitfully as we've come to expect from this master filmmaker.

The film can be dissected into two halves - the first half at night while the search for the missing body drags on, the second takes place during the day once the body has been found and the procedures down at the hospital and court take place. Over the course of this grim night conversations unfurl amongst the bored policemen and prosecutor; some mundane such as arguments over cheese or negligence, and others profoundly personal. Like the nature of the compositions the conversations unfold so naturally and evolve so delicately they become immersive, like eaves dropping on details we're not meant to hear. Ceylan's films have always had a unique magical quality to them - they are at once so simply captured they feel real yet a heightened reality is also present, something other worldly looms quietly. This was most present in 2008's Three Monkeys but here it's taken even further.

Moments such as the grass shaking wildly in the wind illuminated by headlights blended seamlessly with shots of the men's hair blowing equally as strong are spellbinding. Ceylan is a poet of cinema and here he shows men one with a world they don't understand. Characters talk about the horrible acts they've witnessed in their line of work, how they've met men more beast than human, how they can't comprehend how certain people can be driven to such evil. The state prosecutor tells the doctor present that it's good he never had kids when the doctor reveals he is divorced, he asks how can you bring a child into a world where such evil exists? While these conversations are played out a man shakes a tree for an apple and the camera tracks one that falls and rolls down a stream, it tracks the fruit for about a minute while the conversations carry on before reaching the end where a cluster of other apples wait, lost and forgotten. The fruit that represents original sin also represents the lost people of the world, the ones who drift into darkness and evil, or does that count for all of us?

As the film approaches daylight it loses steam somewhat, the film still has more to say but perhaps could have been wrapped up precisely, Ceylan of course is never one known to rush. A common expectation would be for the dawn to bring ease to this brooding tale but with added light brings the story into remarkably darker territory. As we witness the coronary examination of the body it hits home again just how much this story is about children, as we see the boy of the dead man witness his father laid out on a slab with his grieving mother by his side, the prosecutor's words about how children pay for the sins of adults resonates. The procedural nature of the autopsy and the handling of identifying the body showing how the sin of the world has worn these men down, how they've now come to accept the darkest dregs of life as habitual happenings.

As the film comes to a close, the childless divorcee doctor looks out over a playground where the grieving boy and mother walk past, in the background the sounds of the father still being opened and dissected. Like the rest of the film before it nothing needs to be spoken as the doctor's eyes tell it all. We never know the circumstances behind the man's death, who really killed him or why, because that's not important. The fact is that it has happened and someone has to pay for it. Ceylan captures moments of beauty and pain in his film; moments such as the doctor looking through photos seemingly showing a lost love. Moments such as these are greatly moving an reveal the almost intimidating responsive power of this director.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a thriller unlike most, crafted with unashamed levels of ambiguity and sitting comfortably next to past greats such as L'Avventura or Blow-Up. It may be too much for some but for those willing to take the trip into Ceylan's brand of tantric cinema the results are pure ecstasy.

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