Link to a formal review at the end.
This was my favorite film at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is structurally brilliant. It actually does things that I haven’t really seen in a film before.
A group of semi-allegorical figures – a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), a police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan) and a prosecutor (Taner Birsel) set out with a group of soldiers, diggers, other police and two prisoners to find the location of a dead body. The film takes place basically over the course of about 24 hours.
On first glance this is a rambling, bumblingly comedic road trip film. There are a lot of wry one-liners, and not much is really achieved. But Ceylan is doing much more than just that.
I’ll start with the structure and the protagonist, since they sort of go hand-in-hand. The structure is such that Ceylan basically loses main characters whenever he’s done with them. By that I mean: we start with the police chief as the central figure. It’s his search. Gradually, the focus shifts from the chief to the prosecutor, and he takes over as lead character. Additionally, the police chief is basically pushed to the margins of the narrative so as to be rendered almost entirely moot. Later in the film the focus shifts again, this time to the doctor. This process of shedding characters is not done via replays or huge cinematic perspective plays (read: intersecting characters and storylines ala an Amores Perros), but is instead just woven directly into the subtle thread of the film to the extent that we don’t even really realize that there’s been a shift until 5-10 minutes after the shift where we might find ourselves thinking, ‘where’d the police chief go?’
By keeping the true protagonist hidden (when’s the last time you watched a film and didn’t know who the main character was until the end?) and structuring the film as such, Ceylan is able to accomplish a few things. First, he’s able to layer several peoples’ pasts and individual search for truths, and really unearth (a pun…which I think he intends) each one’s unique motivations. Second, the structure of the film, which oxymoronically shifts rapidly but moves slowly, mirrors the search for the body, which ambles and shifts gears. Third, he’s able to examine the effects of one event (the search) on each character and, by discarding them when done with them, is able to drift his story in such a way that almost feels non-linear. This has the outcome of making the timeframe of the story, where characters drift in and out, seem simultaneously defined and ambiguous. By only revealing the protagonist in the last 20 minutes (of a 142 minute film) he’s keeping us guessing, but he’s also pointing to the fact that if the story were to continue, there would be another shift. He makes his film endless in this way and the final shots, with a POV out of a window, justify this reasoning.
I might start rambling more than usual here. There’s a lot to talk about with this film. I want to mention some of small, side characters. There’s an army man who talks about everything in terms of length and distance, and a police officer who hates a village where the group goes to rest. The prisoner is also interesting – he shifts from stoic to desperate to silent to distraught. These characters, particularly the former two, fit into the allegorical nature of the film, but they are not (and I had to have this confirmed by a Turkish friend of mine) necessarily political at all. Another reason I love this film – for all of its personal politics, it’s refreshingly apolitical. The army man could be representative, sure: the need to define (read: to find one and only one answer). In this way he’s aligned more with the doctor than the prosecutor, though the doctor himself shifts morally in the end as well. The army man could also be read as political though: the unnecessary military presence. Regardless of how you read any of these characters, one thing is certain. They all combine, alongside everyone else in this picture, to add up to the overarching theme: fact vs. fiction; truth vs. lies. When the prisoner’s stance suddenly switches because of something that happens off-screen and behind closed doors we have to question its validity in the same way that the prosecutor is constantly falsifying quotations from people.
There’s a wonderful sequence that features a few time compressions. It comes towards the end of the film. The search is over. Body found. The doctor is alone in his office. There’s a cut from him to a shot of the window with trees blowing outside. I remember watching it and at that cut wondering why the shot was there. The next cut reveals the prosecutor sitting across from the doctor…though he clearly wasn’t there in the first shot. That shot of the window is a time bridge of sorts. It further blurs an already blurred timeline. There’s another instance of this in the same scene, when, during a shot-reverse-shot, the doctor is suddenly holding a file. It’s almost comical at first. It feels like a continuity mistake. But when taken in the context of the entire film, where time is at first simply dictated by the rising sun but gradually becomes more complex, it’s clearly intentional. Why play with time this way? For one, this is also a film about memory. Everyone has a memory – the police chief has a mentally ill son, the prosecutor has a history with his wife, the doctor also has a lost love. Their memories are clouded, and they’ve recreated their own, convenient fictions (again truth vs. lies). Time has clouded them over, and this search unclouds them (another semi-pun – they search for the body while they search through their memories….not really a pun I guess). Ceylan stretches and compresses time to mirror their own inner-workings. ‘How long ago did I lose my wife’ has the same meaning as ‘how long have we been driving tonight.’ Ceylan seems to want all events to exist in a timeless space, where when isn’t as important as how…which itself isn’t even always answered.
The very end of the film is truly incredible. I don’t want to give much away but there’s a morality issue at heart. It’s one that’s been set-up throughout the film between the doctor and the prosecutor. The doctor is finally alone. He decides to grey his own morality at the service of another person. The last shots – a trickle of blood on the doctor’s cheek as he’s framed in close-up at the window, his POV of woman and child walking away down a road – work on a narrative level (he’s watching the direct effects of his action) and a symbolic level (hope for the future). Hell, you can even read into that trickle of blood if you want (a flaw in his outer character). It’s so evenly paced, and Ceylan packs so much meaning into that POV by way of context and framing – the child runs over to a group of other kids who are in the same frame but clearly separated by the bisecting road – that we get both optimism and pessimism in about 20 seconds of cinema.
As I was watching this film I kept thinking of how much it reminded me of Camus’ The Plague. Part of that is how allegorical that novel is. But much is also due to the pacing of both, where both works observe a violent event (a plague and a murder), observe its effects more than its course, and find moments of humor and clarity amidst a semblance of chaos. If you’ve read The Plague perhaps you’ll remember the moment where the doctor goes for a swim. It’s my favorite part of the book because of the emphasis on the beauty of nature and the calm amidst the storm. There are moments like this in Anatolia as well – an apple falling off a tree where the camera (seemingly inexplicably) pans with it, the doctor offering the prisoner a cigarette.
That shot of the apple is also emblematic of this entire film. When the apple first falls and the camera starts to move with it our narrative sensibilities tell us that there is a destination. That this apple will likely fall on the location of the grave. In short, that there is a reason for this apple to be falling in this film. But as the pan continues and we eventually end the shot with another apple fallen in a small stream that option is negated. Instead we have the simple idea of cause and effect, where effect isn’t necessarily dramatic or overstated. Cause and effect doesn’t have to be because the apple fell the body was discovered. It can just be because the apple fell…it fell. That’s similar to the film. It’s not because the men go searching for a body they find it, arrest the right man amidst a series of suspenseful occurrences and then move onto the next crime. Instead it’s because the men go searching for a body…they uncover things about themselves…not directly tied, ala that apple and what it initially promises.