Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s dusk on the Turkish steppe. A crime has been committed. The manacled perpetrator is part of the search party looking for the body of his victim. Apparently, he can’t remember exactly where it is buried. Is he an unreliable informant? Does he have his reasons for slowing the pace…?

As the hunt stalls, the conversation between the various policemen, the men with shovels and the officials involved in the case, turns from the professional to the personal. They behave as though suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis) wasn’t there, chatting amongst themselves about their lives at home, and inevitably, their women. When they discuss the quality of Turkish yoghurt, it is one of several occasions in which you begin to wonder where things are going. The comedic scenes when they realise they haven’t bought a body bag with them, and when they struggle to fit the body into the boot of their vehicle is another. And despite this, the film treats everyone, dead or alive, innocent or guilty, with respect.

The gaunt suspect is central to the investigation, but not to the film. It becomes apparent that it is the doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) who is the main character, and not, as we might have thought at first, the prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) who solicits our attention and fancies he looks like Clark Gable. In effect, Cemal is the observer, the guy who need only serve up the scientific evidence when required, until he is drawn into the unfolding drama and is himself compelled to play a part, despite his disinclinations and his efforts to keep himself beyond the fray.

Women are rarely seen and barely heard in this police procedural, if that’s what it is. The frames are dominated by images of dark men in heavy coats under a lowering night sky, yet women hold the key to the narrative mysteries. Or, as one characters mutters, they are at the bottom of everything.

When the men pause their search to dine with a local mayor, they are suddenly confronted by the beauty of his daughter who appears to help serve their meal. The talk stops and they all gaze in silent wonder. The moment is at once incidental and momentous.

This majestic, complex and beautiful film—it won’t be for everyone—is full of scenes like these, both incidental and momentous. And from time to time it feels as though the director (and co-writer) Nuri Bilge Ceylan could change the direction at any time, from procedural to thriller to comedy to romance and back again. The title announces it has a tale to tell but with the final frames an element of mystery remains. It’s an exquisitely subtle point to end it on, but enormously satisfying all the same.

In a capsule: A subtle and superbly original film that involves a party of men in a search for the body of a murder victim in the Turkish countryside.  Grand cinema, and a police procedural like no other.

5 stars