Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which is surely some sort of masterpiece*, will play the New York Film Festival tomorrow (its first and only screening at the fest) and it will open theatrically later in Winter (early January, I believe), courtesy of the fine folks at The Cinema Guild. I have a lot to say about Anatolia, but can only say so much right now. Before I get to my brief assessment of the film (after the jump), allow me to recommend my friend Ali Arikan's lovely, hilarious, and highly personal take on it, here.
As for me, I can say that this director who was once pegged (even by myself) as moving somewhere along the continuum between Kiarostamian impressionism and Jarmuschian deadpan has journeyed now into a fiercely more ambitious and cosmic cinematic realm. And Anatolia has more in common with something like 2001 or Stalker than it does with, I dunno, Through the Olive Trees or even Taste of Cherry (as much as I love those films, and as much as I love Ceylan’s earlier films).
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia seems to me to be, more than anything, a film about death -- or perhaps more specifically, mortality. The first half focuses on the search for a murdered body, as an alleged killer leads the authorities on something of a wild goose chase. There’s plenty of room for humor here, and Ceylan seizes it (especially if you speak Turkish and have a feel for the cadences of the language, Anatolia is a very, very funny film).
But in Ceylan’s hands, this landscape becomes a metaphysical one. The endless dark valleys of the Anatolian night, where giant stone faces lurk watching and where the characters’ own memories seem to live on forever, never quite register as a real place: He never shoots his locations with an eye towards mapping their geography in any meaningful way; characters drift off in different directions; and the supposed killer is perpetually confused, not just as to whether any given location is the right one, but even about the burial site’s distinguishing features (a ball-shaped tree, a fountain, soft earth, etc.).
The abstract, dreamlike nature of the film reaches its apex during an extended section in a village which seems to be something of a ghost town – in between praising his wife's lamb, the local official informs our heroes that the place is populated almost entirely of old people, that they often can’t bury their dead because their children (who have emigrated abroad or to the big cities) keep saying they want to travel back and kiss their parents' corpses, and that they need a new morgue and a place to wash and prepare bodies. The scenes in this strange, mostly unseen town are punctuated by a final, quiet passage of such confounding mystery and spectral beauty that even to describe it would be to drain it of some unearthly power.
The unreal nature of these early scenes gives way to a more immediate shooting style in the film’s final section, set the following morning in the central town. Anatolia now displays a harsher, more interrogative camera (a new thing for Ceylan, BTW) which gets in closer to the characters, following them around (sometimes handheld) and ceding the previously highly composed nature of the frame – extras intrude, characters slip in and out of shot, snippets of dialogue and random sounds muscle in on the soundtrack. Stylistically, narratively, and thematically, the second half of the film is the opposite of the first: The prosecutor takes statements, the doctor conducts an autopsy, townspeople react to the news of the killing and the death. The mythical gives way to the mundane; the mystery of death is gone, replaced instead with its physical and social consequences. And a film that began in the enveloping, sensuous darkness of a dream ends in the cold, hard light of the painfully real, and it's up to us to determine where eternity lies.
* I am well aware, of course, that several of Ceylan's previous films -- including Uzak (Distant), Iklimler (Climates), and Uc Maymum (Three Monkeys) have topped my Top Ten lists in their respective years. So for me, at least, this isn't a case of Ceylan finally making a masterpiece as it is a case of him yet again making another masterpiece. But that doesn't change the fact that Anatolia is a film of staggering ambition, even for this director.