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Old Turks: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Reviewed
Colm McAuliffe , March 16th, 2012 06:02

This epic, absurd police procedural should see Cannes Film Festival favourite Nuri Bilge Ceylan reach beyond his usual art house constituency. Colm McAuliffe says never mind the length, feel the quality

The premise to Once Upon A Time In Anatolia has all the hallmarks of a joke. A policeman, a lawyer, and a doctor enter the vast Anatolian steppes of the Turkish countryside. What happens next? Well, aided and abetted by a haggard killer, his brother, a series of flamboyant changes in the weather and sporadic touches of solipsistic angst, this unlikely combination results in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's beautifully judged chronicle of a forensic drama cowled in seemingly irrelevant distractions, bumbling officialdom and personal obsessions.

Talk of police procedurals and existential dread may give the impression that this is merely an episode of The Bill scripted by Camus, but the particular story in ...Anatolia is told with the precision of a Chekhov and executed with the aplomb of an Old Master. Clocking in at a hefty 157 minutes, it may initially seem like an arse-numbing endurance test, but any posterior paralysis is well-earned. This is a film that reaps rewards for close watching: the mysteries alluded to throughout come to light in a rather shocking fashion at the end, leaving you reeling from uncertainty over tying up the loose ends and sheer wonderment at why every road movie isn't so attuned to the absurdities of everyday life.

Naturally, the notion of a road movie is generally associated with the timeworn American daydream of 'hitting the road' whenever complex personal issues are afoot. While this often results in sudden outbreaks of extreme danger and heroic violence (for example, the melancholic ferocity of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive), the European response has traditionally eschewed the casual murderous rampaging in favour of a more cerebral mobility (as seen in Agnès Varda's masterful Vagabond and Michael Haneke's Code Unknown). But the personal journeys undertaken by the restless protagonists here are not just mired in their own abject preoccupations; Ceylan invokes the spirit of absurdism throughout. Indeed, the picture is punctuated with a beguiling sense of humour all too absent elsewhere: it's difficult to imagine Ryan Gosling's nameless anti-hero taking a break from his killing spree to debate the merits of buffalo yoghurt, or John Hillcoat's relentlessly grim anti-heroes in The Road arguing over each other's pissing techniques. It's these moments of discursive meandering which hold the key to the film's gradual unravellings.

This combination of the droll and the desolate has been a hallmark of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's cinematic excursions. His penchant for rich, languid fare steeped in the history of stormy East-West relations may be the primary factor in his absence from the mainstream milieu, but the trajectory of his work has advanced from abstract early shorts (1995's Koza, starring the director's own parents) towards fully consummated genre filmmaking. His flair began to emerge with 2002's tale of urban alienation Uzak, referencing Tarkovsy and pornography in the same exasperated sigh, before taking the lead role himself in the cynical beauty of 2006's Climates. Two years later came Three Monkeys, an ironic rumination on domestic and political turmoil through the prism of fiscal infidelities, for which he won the Best Director Award at Cannes.

Along with his contemporaries Semih Kaplanoglu and Zeki Demirkubuz, Ceylan has been at the helm of the new wave of Turkish filmmaking and the associative slow cinema movement. The latter may conjure up images of harsh, austere, blink-and-you'll-miss-a-masterpiece snorefests but Ceylan's narratives are remarkably seductive, often leading the viewer to revel in the joy of not knowing. It is this sense of the unknown which drives the plot throughout ...Anatolia. Beginning with three decrepit looking men drinking into the night, it's soon revealed that two of them later killed the other, although the crime itself is hidden from our view. This preamble provides the platform for the rural perambulation which comprises the film's first half: our unlikely troupe of officials and degenerates scouring the countryside for this elusive corpse. In fact, the body isn't located until two-thirds of the way through. But this lengthy search provides Ceylan with the opportunity to capitalise on the all-encompassing emptiness of his landscape. Echoing Antonioni at his peak, the night-time cinematography - often shepherded simply by the glare of car headlights - appears to extend into infinity, a sufficiently limitless backdrop to accompany the faux-philosophical musings of the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and the prosecutor (Taner Birsel).

Ceylan manages to convey the sense that there is a far larger world beyond the film's frame, and not just via its visuals. There is a significant lack of female characters, yet the spectral presence of women haunts and infuses each of the principals. It is the appearance of the local mayor's daughter, whose simple task is to balance an oil lamp on a tray of brittle teacups, which provides a grace and heartbeat to proceedings, ending the male-centric filibuster as she brings almost divine respite from the macabre realities of their investigation.

It takes a considerable amount of skill to craft humour, character studies and elaborate drama on the pretext of sketchy memories and tenuous links. With ...Anatolia, it appears Ceylan has successfully forced the hand of chance. The entire film is quite a spectacle, never remotely feeling as long as its running time suggests. Of course, the director's filmmaking doesn't quite exist in a vacuum but the essential appeal is uniquely, dare I say, Ceylanian. Also, this is far too funny to conform to po-faced Euroexistential angst. The frivolity of seriousness has never been so alluring.