Dark, demanding and more than a little drawn out, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not a film for those interested in idle, uninvolved viewing. The two and a half hour Turkish mediation on life and death is deliberately difficult and testing for its audience, with heavy emotional themes and introspective contemplation rife throughout.
Co-winner of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix, this epic film is set in the barren and eerie countryside of rural Turkey, where a band of civil servants accompany two criminals throughout the night in a tedious quest to find the remains of their murder victim. I won’t give the ending away here, as really it is largely unimportant. This film demonstrates unequivocally that ultimately the human experience is made not from the destination, but the journey, as the destination for each and every one of us is always going to be the same.
However with this cinematic journey, where the cause of this central murder is only ever eluded too and never actually revealed, there is a great sense of postmodernist angst that permeates the story. The viewer is constantly questioning what has happened to these villains and to these characters, to bring them to this place and this point in time. The characters throughout the film – the villain, the prosecutor, the doctor and the various policemen – are all emotionally rich, desperately human beings, each of whom adds equal humour and sadness to the increasingly melancholy proceedings.
But as brooding and testing as the weighty subject matter might be, there is no denying that there is great beauty and visual splendour that punctuates the darkness of the film. A particularly beautiful scene of an apple floating past the other fallen fruits down a fountain creek in the darkness, only to wind up trapped on same ledge as the rest; serves as both a stunning metaphor and visual delight that quietly demands the audience’s attention and brings home the poignancy of the events at hand. This shot is only outstripped by a gorgeous moment in which the travelling crew, all men, stop to rest in the middle of the night only to be struck with a power outage. The light is returned by way of the exquisite mayor’s daughter, who illuminates the scene with both candles and feminine grace.
The film is riddled with moments like this, wherein the visual beauty onscreen seems to be in direct contrast with the confronting themes of the macabre storyline. Whilst no picnic in the park, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a must-see for anyone with any interest in cinematography, and is important viewing for anyone else who needs some trans-cultural enlightenment on the nature of universal mortality.
By Kate Hodges.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is now showing at Luna Palace Cinemas.