Updated through 5/23.
"On Friday, the 64th Cannes Film Festival presented a selection that grabbed critics and could nab the Palme d'Or on Sunday if the jury rises to the occasion," writes the New York Times' Manohla Dargis. "Both beautiful and beautifully observed, with a delicate touch and flashes of humor and horror, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is an ambitious, leisurely inquiry into a specific world — the haunting land of its title — that transcends borders. Touching on life, death and everything in between in 157 minutes, this metaphysical road movie follows a police investigation that, when the story opens, has led its characters into near dark."
"Anatolia's imposing title and 157-minute running time would seem to signify a butt-numbing endurance test for all but the most hardened festival and arthouse patrons," writes Justin Chang in Variety. "Doing little to quell this perception, more than half of this intensely male-centric film unfolds under cover of darkness, as a prosecutor, a doctor, several police officers and two murder suspects navigate the sloped, winding roads of the Anatolian steppe in search of a corpse; its eventual discovery around the 90-minute mark drew sarcastic applause from some of the press corps assembled at the film's first Cannes screening. Ceylan's characters themselves would probably sympathize. Though never less than professional, they're an impatient, exhausted bunch, having spent hours driving around with two self-confessed killers, Kenan (Firat Tanis) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz), who can't remember exactly where they buried the man they bumped off a few days earlier. In the film's many establishing and re-establishing shots, the darkness is penetrated only by the high beams of three cars winding across this barren yet beautiful terrain, where trees are sparse and each landscape looks more or less like the last (hardly a complaint, given Gokhan Tiryaki's stunning widescreen compositions)."
"Throughout Ceylan's sprawling anti-mystery," writes Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door, "fact and fiction often overlap through lengthy conversations and shared memories. But this isn't a form of togetherness binding the men. Ceylan is purely interested in slowly unveiling a thematic can of worms that will tear them apart one long take at a time…. I can't help but feel Anatolia is crippled by its strenuous attention to the droll rhythms of everyday contradiction. The final moral compromise is scathing, but it's nothing I didn't expect from this wary group of country warblers immersed in suffocating bureaucratic red tape."
"A change in style for Ceylan in its seeming reluctance to bait and hook its audience too soon, this is a rumination on investigative storytelling told as if round a campfire," writes Sight & Sound's Nick James. "The drama is relayed from character to character… Ceylan saves and delivers his jewel-like surprises with the precision of a Chekov."
That thought's come to Deborah Young as well. "As in a story by Chekhov," she writes in the Hollywood Reporter, "the first half of the film is filled with insignificant conversations that serve to delineate the characters, like the scientific-minded young doctor who's divorced and the hot-headed police chief who has a sick child. As the camera slowly and implacably zooms in on their faces, it seems to reveal their very soul. The chit-chat also abounds with hints which, if the viewer is a good detective, turn out to be highly significant later on. In the spirit of Michael Haneke's Hidden, it's essential to keep the eyes open and catch the clues that will make the ending work."
For indieWIRE's Eric Kohn, the film "plays like Zodiac meets Police, Adjective. That's a tough combination to pull off: Neither David Fincher's epic tale of the infamous decade-spanning serial killer hunt nor Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu's minimalist cop drama come with easy answers. But Ceylan has made a similarly analytical brain teaser, rendered in patient and sharply philosophical terms."
"Then there is Ceylan's eye for lighting and framing, whether in still life portraits or nature frescoes, which has been evident all through his earlier films." Dan Fainaru for Screen: "The structure of his images is no less than striking, his use of the Anatolian landscape, breathtaking with the obscurity reigning over the first half helping to enhance his particular talent for lighting interiors, and even more, human faces. This is not just consummate cinematography, though of course it is, but the kind of creative, painterly talent echoed in all of Ceylan work as a still photographer."
Grades at Micropsia have tipped just over 7 out of 10.
Updates, 5/23: For Mike D'Angelo, writing at the AV Club, this is "an intelligent, meticulous, incredibly beautiful movie that's offered plenty of food for thought since I saw it, but that I found downright torturous to actually sit through…. Ceylan knows precisely what he's doing — a lengthy shot of an apple tumbling downhill into a stream, merely to come to rest beside other rotted apples, all but chides us for seeking direct answers — and he uses car headlights the way Kubrick used candles in Barry Lyndon, but I still had enormous trouble staying alert amidst the endless trudging and sniping and sharing of seemingly random anecdotes."
"Ceylan's previous movies — including Distant, Climates, and Three Monkeys — were small in scale, sometimes about the Turkish soul and sometimes about him. This is a murder yarn." The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris: "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lacks the seismic linguistic payoff of Corneliu Poromboiu's Police, Adjective. Nor is it as sharp and sanded down as the Romanian's best films, which manage to prove how much daily life is extricable from national history. I don't know that Ceylan is thinking quite that big here, but his movie is more vividly photographed and even better mustached. And that title becomes an insinuating irony. 'Once upon a time' could mean 'every day.'"
Cannes 2011. Index: Reviews, interviews, coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.