January 4, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

by Steve Dollar

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Time's up, cinema aesthetes. Ring out the old, ring in the new. Stop looking at those 10 best lists and get on with your lives. The calendar has flipped over into 2012 and... I've already got a new #1. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which opens today in New York, will have plenty of competition throughout the coming year. Guaranteed, though, you will see very few films as masterfully designed and executed, or so heavy with thought that the extended silences that suspend the characters in time and space make even the most seemingly mundane interludes of dialogue (and there's a ton of dialogue by Ceylan's minimalist standard) feel loaded with quietly devastating significance. Imagine, for the sake of cultural transliteration, the banal, jocular nature of—say, a traveling salesman joke—shared between two gruff men, strangers yoked together by professional duty, breaking the boredom of a marathon overnight detail that threatens not to end with the dawn. On one level, it's just a little rough humor to pass time, break ice. But in this scenario, lines that might be throwaway someplace else turn resonant, the lure of hidden meanings plunged like an anchor against the elliptical drift.

Ceylan proposes a mystery, even though the crime has been solved. Much as in his 2008 Three Monkeys, there's a dead body to kick the story into motion. In that earlier film, a tragic accident and a cover-up set the stage for a domestic meltdown. Here, the corpse is the focus of an arduous search. As the film opens, a tiny caravan of cars winds slowly along an isolated road that curves through the Anatolian steppes. Dusk settles into night, the yellow glare of headlights illuminating a tall tree that divides the purple horizon, limbs rustling in the breeze. The stationary camera sits far enough away from the action that the entire scene unfolds against a painterly tableaux, the dialogue and slamming car doors close-miked so that you hear the terse, impatient voices before matching them to any faces.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

As a long, long night unfolds, Ceylan often maintains this omniscient perspective, framing landscape against faulty memory as a posse that includes a police chief, a prosecutor and a village doctor accompanies a killer and his half-wit brother accomplice who will lead them, after much plodding and frustration, to the shallow grave where he buried his victim. (Their erratic path is symbolized when an apple falls from a tree at the once putative site, rolling every which way until it settles into the crux of two streams). That's only where the story really begins, however, the procedural ploy serving as a tool to uncover facets of character, culture and profound secrets that haunt each of the principals—as palpable as weather. In a particularly telling interlude, the kind of moment that makes Once a Upon a Time in Anatolia so demanding of close attention, the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) stops to take a leak by a hillside. Lightning cracks, flashing visible the details of a face carved into the stone, which seems to pass judgment.

A policeman they call "Arab" (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) pontificates:

"None of us live forever, do we Doctor? The Prophet Solomon, well, he lived to 750. Gold, jewels... well, he died in the end, too."

And the Doctor replies, taking note of the storm.

"It's been raining for centuries, what difference does it make? But not even 100 years from now, neither you or me or the prosecutor of the police chief. Well, as the poet said, still the years will pass and not a trace of me remains. Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul."

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The director's expressive touch with extreme low lighting, a chiaroscuro palette articulated with Old Master aplomb by cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, would already have cast a spell. Yet here, too, the sound of the wind whipping, and very slow zoom shots towards the back of a head and a hangdog gaze interrupted by a single gathering tear. These stretches come closest to suggesting a kinship with Sergio Leone (whose Westerns the title evokes): solitary men with women scarcely in sight, their faces creased with melancholy and hard lessons, facing down the distance with hundred-yard eyes, swallowed up into the existentialism of it all. Eventually, the travelers make a pivotal rest stop at a small village where some essential anecdotes bubble up, deepening the themes of mortality, causality and the nature of meaning while seeding plot points that come into play during the final frames. As night passes into day, they will eventually find the body. It almost seems like a "spoiler" to spell out the conversations, which offset heavy philosophical ruminations with richly felt humor (not everything is lost in translation). But two or three things are key. They include the story, passed between the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a single father, and the doctor, a divorced bachelor, of a woman who forecasts her own death to her husband, five months to the day she drops lifeless; and an anecdote explaining the eerie calm of the village, which needs a new morgue because the bodies of the deceased must remain unburied long enough for their children—who fled long ago for Germany—to return home and say goodbye. And then a ghost appears.

The final third of the film begins to unpack and illuminate details, still in a fragmented, nearly ephemeral way, that implies so much more than can be immediately processed. Subtleties of tone and angle of brow, the intensity of eyes that peer through a window at a woman and her child, and of the woman who looks back from a black-and-white photograph are almost casually shuffled. By the time the screen goes dark to the audible squish of an autopsy in progress, you're ready to go back to the start, digging for answers in the wet dirt.

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Posted by ahillis at January 4, 2012 8:29 AM