Following its premiere in Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix (shared with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has been touring the festival circuit — we posted a roundup of reviews from the New York Film Festival — and showing up on more than a few best-of-2011 lists. Today, it opens at New York's Film Forum, where it'll be playing through January 17.
"Turkey's leading filmmaker has several accomplished festival-friendly evocations of urban isolation to his credit," writes the Voice's J Hoberman, "notably the city mouse-country mouse character study Distant (2002) and the pensive breakup not-quite-comedy Climates (2006). In themes and style, both films are evocative of early Antonioni; a 157-minute police procedural at once sensuous and cerebral, profane and metaphysical, 'empty' and abundant, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is closer to the Antonioni of L'Avventura, and it elevates the 52-year-old director to a new level of achievement."
For Time Out New York's David Fear, the first half of the film "expertly milks deliberate long takes and deadpan philosophical inquiries for mild existential dread. Cops scour the dusky Anatolian countryside for a corpse, with the hapless killer [Firat Tanis] in tow. The police chief [Yılmaz Erdoğan] chides his staff, while a doctor [Muhammet Uzuner] and a prosecutor [Taner Birsel] wonder about the Great Cosmic Why of it all. Everyone gropes helplessly in the literal and metaphorical dark, waiting for answers and a body to appear. It's like an episode of Hill Street Blues written by Samuel Beckett…. There's too much beauty and ballast in the movie's early stages to dismiss Ceylan's cerebral cop drama, and too much genuine banality in its latter acts to justify a sluggish slouch into the shallow end."
But for the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, this is "a plangent, visually stunning meditation on what it is to be human…. The title of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggests the work of Sergio Leone, including most obviously Leone's 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. I don't want to make strong claims about the influence of that or any other Leone film on Anatolia, though the twinned landscapes of this movie's natural vistas and the ugly beauty of its fantastic faces evoke Leone.... Yet, like most westerns, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is, among other things, an examination of violence and masculinity, one in which women remain critical if largely off-screen figures, silent if never truly mute. Mr Ceylan doesn’t trumpet his ideas, but lets them quietly surface, often through the stories that the men tell one another and that at times take the form of parables."
At GreenCine Daily, Steve Dollar focuses on one of these, and then: "The director's expressive touch with extreme low lighting, a chiaroscuro palette articulated with Old Master aplomb by cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, would already have cast a spell."
"Before the lights go up there will have been a formal confession of sorts, plus several others wedged into the busy ancillary activity," writes Ella Taylor for NPR. "There will be moments of goofy kindness, and in the doctor's mournful gaze after the shapely figure of a woman, a hint at another confession that may never be made. In this, as in all of Ceylan's films, it's the distractions and elisions, not the official stories, that carry the existential weight of the days of our lives."
IndieWIRE's Eric Kohn has launched a new column, "Filmmakers You Should Know," starting with, yes, Nuri Bilge Ceylon.
Updates, 1/5: "It's like an episode of CSI, scripted by Anton Chekhov, stretched to two and a half hours, and photographed against the bleak, impressive scenery of Turkey's central steppes," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "There's something almost mythical about the night journey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and its characters are like Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, filling up the darkness with their fragmentary serio-comic anecdotes, or like Odysseus' doomed crewmen."
More from Nicolas Rapold (L) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, A-). And Brandon Harris interviews Ceylan for Filmmaker.