Three men sit in the office of a repair garage. Two drink Raki mixed with water. A pleasant chubby man raises a Coca-Cola. One of the men rises, hearing something outside, and at the window he looks out at the darkening sky. It will rain. When he opens the door there is nothing there. To give himself a reason for walking outside, he speaks to his dog. A truck passes. So begins Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan about so much more than a crime that takes a car full of tired men out into a windy night on the Anatolian Steppes in Turkey.
I think there is a certain type of story that fits best in a novel and so people have come to regard it with suspicion whenever its told in film. The kind of story I’m talking about takes place in a wordless region of human thought and therefore resists the feathers that filmmaking puts in its own hat – dialogue, special effects, violence. These stories have to do with the bones of the universe, the fundamental logic of mankind that men live within, can rarely stand outside of to capture with words, and can maybe reveal over the course of three hundred well written pages of literature like Moby Dick, Blood Meridian, or For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s a question that bothers me: why can’t there to be stories, unique to film, that accomplish what these works of literature do?
In each of these works resides an idea that resists simply being stated with words. We have a belief then, that while literature can tell these stories, operating on subtler magics than film, that what is written out in words can only be done more clumsily on screen. Who would ever think you could put Moby Dick successfully through the meat grinder of Hollywood? The danger of trying to film stories like this of course is that movies end up being pretentious. We all have a vision of a film like this, featuring a wandering protagonist, perhaps shot in black and white, with no dialogue and a lot of voice over. An artsy film. But I’ve always wondered why the membrane between literature and film seems to run only one way. People never speak about a movie that should be written out, but we’ve all come to expect that you can make a mediocre film out of a good book. At best, we think, you can make a good movie out of a great book. I would point to The Road as a good piece of film made from a magnificent work of literature. I just watched Le Miserables and at the end of it, my reaction was to remember how good the book was. Only a few directors have the finesse and some would argue the arrogance to put into film stories already difficult to put in words. Terrence Malick, for instance, tells his stories in visuals, symbolism, and just the right amount of voice over. Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Haneke in The White Ribbon,and Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now explore the backwaters of the human mind by planting in their viewers the seed of unease. These films are remarkable achievements for they bring to the screen stories that resist the telling. Their accomplishments are hard won and their flaws are even more difficult to avoid. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia thoroughly deserves to be considered among these films.
Before I get going, viewers beware. Those not prepared for a slow, lumbering, metaphysically heavy movie should steer well clear of this film. Watching it is like watching a freight train pass and it drains you. It lasts a sheer sided three hours and within the first five minutes, you suspect that the scenes don’t change often. The whole film takes place over twelve hours, following the actions of a car full of police, two suspects, a prosecutor and a doctor, who becomes our Virgil in this strange hell of reality. The movie barely stuck to the conventions of film, which nearly makes it a travesty. I was therefore thrilled that the experiment worked so grandly in the end, despite its length. The faults of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are obvious as they are easy to list, so I’ll get them out of the way. I think the film could have lost the weight of an hour and done the same job. However, the achievements of the film thoroughly outweigh the costs.
Though it takes place around a crime, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia grapples with so much more than most films dare and therefore does not stick to the conventions of a police procedural. A pattern establishes itself. The men park. The chief exits the car. He questions the man in handcuffs whether this is the right place to find “it”. It’s a laughable question because every place looks the same. The man says he doesn’t know and the chief orders a lieutenant to turn his truck so that the beams cut through the field. We don’t even know what the “it” is for sure until about an hour and a half in. But the crime isn’t essential to the movie, rather it provides the bare bones from which to speculate about large human truths. The men keep repeating an adage that fathers pass their sins to their sons.
The moral crux of the movie rests on a decision that the doctor makes at the end of the film. As they wait for the men searching in the fields for “it”, the doctor and the prosecutor begin a sparse thread of dialogue that runs like a heartstring to the doctor’s decision. The prosecutor says he knew a man whose wife died on the exact date she predicted. The doctor denies this could be possible. There is a cause for her death, he believes, because causes are not hidden. The very land itself seems to deny this, as the men search hopelessly for a body in the featureless Anatolian flats. They can barely even find towns. Ceylan does a remarkable job using the ancient and brooding Turkish landscape. An homage to the famous Western, you feel like you’re in a fairy tale version of the plains. There’s a scene where the doctor walks up a hill to pee and when lightening strikes and lights up the landscape he sees a face carved into the stone and runs away. Later, he comments with intentional nonchalance to Arab, a police officer, that there are faces in the hills. The man shrugs. He knows. He starts talking about justice. In these lands men have settled justice on their own with for centuries. It’s useless to interfere. This is the central struggle of the film. Characters must choose whether to bow to a notion of futility as wide as the landscape, or to carry out justice by first admitting their own crimes. They fight a weary struggle.
Ceylan’s characters are so human, I had trouble recognizing them at first. At times I hated them for the very small ways they distracted themselves from the larger questions of the film. Between the stops in which they search the fields for the body, we watch the men carefully avoid the issue, talking about yogurt, the bladder of the prosecutor, their sons and wives. They clearly want nothing more than to go home. Even when forced to address the body, most are far more interested in garnering the affection of their superiors, or cracking a joke about Clarke Gable, than examining the questions the crime raises. Everyone wants the issue – that they never stop referring to as “it” – to be off their hands. In one scene, the chief gets frustrated with the suspect he questioned for leading them to yet another blank field and embarrassing him in front of the prosecutor. While he abuses the suspect the camera follows an apple floating down a stream. Ceylan has an eye for men’s soft points. After the argument wears down, the men want food. At that point, I caught myself thinking about what beer I was going to drink after I finished the movie and I realized how human these characters were. When they were forced to ask themselves the questions the crime inspires, they turned to their comforts, to food, to manageable concerns like jobs promotions and new equipment, to thoughts of women and thoughts of home. And yet, by the end of the film most characters have redeemed themselves in a moment where they face truth or reach through impermeable, endless reality to touch another human with a kindness. Some scenes feel so real that they’re uncannily like a fairy tale. By the end of the movie, I felt like I was a person sitting in one of those police cars – exhausted, wanting food, quietly suspicious of the strength of the other men who’s reliance on comfort dehumanize them, and slightly disappointed that I did not have the strength to resist averting my gaze.
One more thing the film has going for it, that I might has missed if not for the time I spent traveling. The film depicts Turkish men with such accuracy I’m surprised it left the country. In one scene, where the police are discouraged at finding “it” one of them comments that at this rate, they’ll never join the EU. The tension of the movie operates on a very Turkish way of thinking. Men are jealous as children for their superior’s attention. They’ll flaunt their successes and hide their failures. They’ll forgive their superior’s faults in front of others while secretly abusing the men above them. I have never seen a film that more accurately depicts the Turkish culture in dialogue, mannerisms, and characters. And oh yes, I’ve drank from the wells they keep visiting in blank fields.
Films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia come along to grace our screens only once in a great while. Ceylan has achieved something remarkable and without any voice overs or shots of nebulous lights. His magic resides firmly in the real world, in the lonely Turkish landscape, solitary wells, moths tapping against lanterns, dogs that guard graves in fields. It’s incredible to watch him transmute the every day into a film about the furthest backwaters of the human mind and then to realize that his transformations have left something disturbingly similar to reality. You come away from the film seeing the world a couple shades off. I would rank this film equivalent to a work of literature and I hope that the kind of movie it is in subject matter and being foreign doesn’t condemn it to obscurity. I don’t think this film will have a wide audience but a very loyal one. It is a dark and modern odyssey through the human heart told without special effects, in sparse dialogue, and a local that’s so strange to film it feels fantastic. Most impressively, Ceylan asks his viewers to weather the same wide Anatolian night as his car full of police officers and criminals. Truth is easy for no one, not even the viewer. In the end, you feel one of them, weary and exhausted, searching the night for clues of “it”.
And finally, a quote from a book that this movie reminded me of:
This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.
- The Judge
My Rating: 9.6