Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a ponderous story from the Anatolian Steppes (review)

Tweet about this on Twitter2Share on Google+0Share on Facebook0
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, movie
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: searching the Anatolian Steppes for the body of a murdered man

Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da/Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has been called an ‘exhilarating masterpiece’, but after sitting through the close to three-hour film, I can assure you, it was anything but, ‘exhilarating’. A rollercoaster ride is exhilarating; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is arduous, although not entirely without merit. Here’s my review of the rather slow and ponderous Turkish film.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s newest film is about a group of men, searching the Anatolian Steppes for the body of a murdered man. The group includes police officers, a prosecutor, a secretary, a doctor and the alleged culprit, Kenan (Firat Tanis).

The group is escorting Kenan as he tries to remember the location at which he buried the body of his victim. The majority of the film is spent riding in cars, alongside these men as they bicker about food and discuss life’s tribulations.

It is a journey which will take them all through the night and into the next day, but no explanation is offered for the murder and neither is it made clear what Kenan’s relationship was to the victim. However, a mere morsel of narrative exposition is divulged in the film’s third act, this minute snippet implicitly implies that the men were rivals for the affections of a woman – but blink and you’ll miss it.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not easy viewing. It is a film which requires your full attention because Ceylan is weaving an extremely protracted narrative, one which is rarely seen in arthouse cinema – let alone ‘popular’ cinema. Ceylan, gives you (the spectator) the pieces to his puzzle, but you have to work very hard to piece them all together. But even when you do, the answers are far from conclusive.

Anyway, I was quite prepared for a film with minimal narrative exposition and a snail pace to match, but for those who are used to being spoon-fed their narrative, you should probably sit this one out – unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous. However, whatever your tastes, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will test the sturdiest of patience, despite its occasional warmth and humour.

For example, the film begins with three men in what appears to be a garage at a remote location. It later becomes apparent, that this is where Kenan murdered his victim. But in this sequence nothing is said and nothing happens; the wind howls outside, but apart from that there is no threat or even the slightest hint of violence. For the uninitiated, and frankly, those familiar with this kind of cinema, it would be very easy to miss the relevance of this scene.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is beautifully shot, well edited, and the acting is superb, and yet there’s a nagging in my gut that just won’t quit. While I enjoy films which challenge ‘Joe average’, films that demand their audiences full attention, I can’t help feeling that Ceylan is eclipsed by a far more competent director within ‘the cinema of slowness’ – and that’s Tsai Ming-liang. Tsai’s films are filled with unnaturally long takes, the minutest of narrative exposition and minimal dialogue, but also a certain charm, which personally, I felt to be rather lacking in Ceylan’s film – despite its obvious craftsmanship.