Landscapes deserve an onscreen credit in the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Time and again, he dwarfs his characters against the mountains or the sky, envelopes them in wind or snow, or lets them fade (sometimes literally) into the world around them. He has said that the land connects his characters to the cosmic, and indeed, the feeling in films like Climates or Distant is of a larger universe that the characters can't fully perceive, let alone comprehend. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it’s telling that we see the protagonists dotting a panorama before we get a close view of any of their faces. After all, this is a film about the journey through a seemingly endless countryside, and the search for one poor soul buried underneath it. Traditionally, the detectives in a police procedural take on a heroic, or even larger-than-life persona. In Ceylan’s interpretation, the protagonists are something different, more like leaves in the wind, or apples carried down a stream. So if they initially appear small, it's only because they're the size of everyone else.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was one of the highlights of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it took home the Grand Prix. In fact, Ceylan has been a mainstay at Cannes for a decade now—his last four films have all won prizes there—making him arguably the most internationally acclaimed director in contemporary Turkish cinema. Anatolia is his most enigmatic and, despite taking place over less than 24 hours, his most expansive film yet. Very much by design, it's the sort of film where plot summaries can be deceptive. The film follows a group of law enforcement officials and two confessed criminals as they drive through the Anatolian steppes, looking for the corpse of a murder victim in order to wrap up a case. But the film is in no hurry to resolve this issue. Instead, we focus on the people: a police chief, for whom the job has long since become mundane; a prosecutor, who carries himself with an impish grin and a hint of a swagger; a doctor, who meets (or attempts to meet) everything with dispassionate logic; and of course, the perpetrators themselves, who largely stay silent, but have an emotional burden and a few revelations of their own.
Unfolding with understated control and set against a series of stunning visuals, their exchanges shade in each character and allow the film to explore guilt, innocence, personal delusions, professional duty, and the land itself. And so the film is almost like a chamber play—one of Ceylan's earliest masterpieces, Clouds of May, is dedicated to Anton Chekhov—only grafted onto the skeleton of a police procedural. Call it a revisionist crime drama, one where the issue is not so much the crime’s solution, but its emotional impact on the characters, and the moral decisions they’ll have to face before the search is over.
As a character piece, it’s a film of quiet climaxes and careful attention to detail. To pick just one example, consider an early scene, where a group of policemen, stuck in a car on a long journey, start to argue about yogurt while a confessed criminal sits silently in between them. It's a moment of delicate, near-absurdist comedy—but then the camera slowly pushes in, the policemen disappear from the frame, and we settle on a close-up of the criminal, with the weight of the situation visibly wearing down on him. With almost imperceptible movement, and without so much as a cut, the tone of the scene has changed, and the method of the film—its atmosphere, rhythm, and psychological concerns—has been established.
Much of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is left pointedly out of sight. We never bear witness to the crime itself and, like the police, can't be sure what really happened or why. The arc of the film is traced across the unknown, as a nearly mystical journey through the night—where darkness is penetrated only by thin shafts of light, and where sleeplessness and cinematography can play tricks on the eye—turns into a cold and sobering day, with few answers and a need for acceptance. The center of the film becomes the doctor, with gently repressed sadness, whose dedication to professionalism and rationality holds steadfast almost until the end—which makes his final decision all the more ambiguous and potent. Is it an act of denial? A gesture of mercy? A refusal to become jaded? As with so many other questions, the answers are left tantalizing and just barely out of reach. I suspect that Anatolia’s unsolvable mysteries will continue to fascinate viewers for quite some time to come. But the last line reveals the guarded heart and emotional wallop of the film. Stand back, the doctor is told. You don't want to get anything on you.