Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Directed by Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Turkey (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da)

“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the sixth feature from the gifted Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, seems to be a deceptively familiar genre film, a police procedural driven by a crime and an investigation.

But the text, credited to Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is far more ambitious, multi-nuanced, and ambiguous than it appears at first sight.

Over the past decade or so Ceylan, the best-known Turkish director working today, has established a small body of work that has gained a loyal international following.

Most of his films have premiered at the prestigious Cannes Fest, including “Distant” (2003), which won the Grand Jury Prize and the acting kudos for its two male leads, “Climates” (2006), “Three Monkeys” (2008), and “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” which is released theatrically in the U.S. by the Cinema Guild.

Defined by deliberate pacing, and with a running time of two and a half hours, the film requires tremendous patience and attention to details from its viewers.  But trust me, you will be rewarded at the end with a multi-layered, multi-nuanced narrative that raises some disturbing and provocative questions about the nature of “truth,” and why and how we go about finding and achieving it.

The impact of the film derives from accumulation of numerous “small” details, which at first seem random, trivial, unconnected, and irrelevant, but taken together, they lead to a richly dense tapestry.

Appearances deceive and so is the film and its narrative.  In choosig the title, Ceylan obviously pays tribute to the late and great Italian director Sergio Leone and his two films, “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America.”

The nominal tale revolves around a brutal murder, committed by a man, who not only confesses to his sin, but also offers to take the police to the scene of the crime and the place where the body is buried.

In the dead of night, a delgation of men, including a police commissioner, a prosecutor, a doctor and a murder suspect, drive in two cars and a jeep through the deserted Anatolian countryside. The serpentine roads and rolling hills are lit only by the headlights of their cars. They are searching for a corpse, the victim of the murder.

However, the suspect, who claims he was drunk, can’t remember where he had buried the body. Is he telling the “truth”?  As the night draws on, various details about the murder emerge and the secrets and hypocrisies of the investigation itself come to light.

For over an hour or so, not much happens by way of conventional plot.  The men engage in endless conversations, while chain-smoking, while we wait and wait for some significant revelations.

But pay attention: Many clues about the murder, the criminal, and the investigators are planted along the way. In the desolate Anatolian country, nothing is what it seems.  Indeed, when the body is found, we don’t sigh with relief and experience the catharsis that usually comes at the end of a suspenseful interrogtaion.  Au contraire, the victim’s body serves as a reminder of how much we don’t know.  It also indicates and illuminates the many ambiguous issues involved in the crime and the investigation.

Like all of Ceylan’s films, “Once Upon a Time” is directed in a subtle, understated way; considering the subject matter, the picture doesn’t hit you over the head.

At the end of the movie, you may feel provoked, or disturbed, or puzzled by what you have seen and heard, which, I suspect is Ceylan’s goals, that is, raising generic expectations only to contest and defy them as the story progresses to its bitter conclusion.