Traipsing Turkey's deep, dark soul

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (M). Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Firat Tanis. 150 minutes

A group of police, medical and legal professionals unearth a corpse from a shallow grave, and are outraged to discover that it has been hogtied. The confessed murderer (Tanis) says it was not sadism but expediency that prompted him to bind the limbs in such a fashion: it made the body easier to transport.

The man's blunt pragmatism seems equally horrific to his outraged captors. Yet moments later they too commit an absurd horror, as they attempt to stuff the body into a car boot in order to transport it back to town. Someone has forgotten to bring a body bag, so a tarpaulin is used to loosely shroud the body. It is debatable whether the murderer or the ones who purport to restore justice have treated the body with the greater indignity.

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is laced with such dark ironies and psychological uncertainties. It paints a time and place where human behaviour is determined by slack bureaucracy, and where natural empathy (let along grace) seems ever at odds with an encroaching world-weariness that borders on apathy.

The title alludes to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, and Turkish filmmaker Ceylon's film does bear stylistic comparison to Leone's vast spaghetti western. It is as epic and brooding as the Turkish steppe upon which its bleak fairytale unfolds; long takes of striking landscapes, riven by the sounds of trickling water and creeping breeze, establish a powerful sense of place, against which the human characters are merely interlopers.

Among them are the confessed murderer and his brother; a police chief with a point to prove (Erdogan); a cocky prosecutor haunted by a metaphysical delusion (Birsel); and a doctor (Uzuner) undergoing an existential crisis of his own. Over the course of one long night, they traipse the fields and knolls of the steppe, searching for the body; the killer, who was drunk when the crime occurred, has forgotten where he buried it.

As the night progresses (and both before and after the body is eventually discovered) confidences are shared, sympathies shift and characters' integrity is tested. The doctor's willingness to share a cigarette with the prisoner stands in stark contrast to the police chief's latent brutality. The police chief himself has his own insecurities that further try his temper. Almost every supporting character gets his moment beneath Ceylon's sickly spotlight.

The doctor, the closest thing the film has to a hero, observes proceedings from inside a quiet, crippling languor. It is contagious, too, gradually eroding, for example, the romantic, spiritual notion that the prosecutor harbours regarding a loved one who appeared to have predicted the time of her own death. The doctor applies a gentle cynicism to this fancy that by the end of the film has the prosecutor considering a far less palatable reality.

At two and a half hours, meditatively paced, and dense and soulful, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is deeply rewarding to reflective viewers. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli probes human faces with the same intent and intensity with which he regards the terrifyingly beautiful landscapes; as if to iterate the ways in which the menace, mystery and majesty of the natural world are mimicked in human nature. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Serge Leone, Turkey



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This is a dark, brooding, incipiently violent physical and emotional landscape Ceylan presents, Tim. A sort of "Badlands of the Soul" which owes a debt to Leone. All "honour" societies, with weak law enforcement as we know it today, are like this, I fear. Where men are supposedly "men" and the only defence of "honour" lies in violence. Yasar Kemal's "Memed, My Hawk" and Orhan Pamuk's "Snow" are two contemporary Turkish novels with the same feel. Beneath the starkness of the landscapes and the continuous violence I get a feeling of moral stench and decay. Something is truly rotten. Can it, will it, be, in some way, redeemed? How? Shakespeare's great tragedies pose the same tremendous and unanswered question. In the closed world of such films, novels and dramas no redeeming answer is forthcoming. Perhaps they do not, artistically, need to give us one? Perhaps what they need to do is to take us back to a place of raw emotion and violence and thus act as both an emotional purge and thus a guide as to where not to go? Orhan Pamuk, for one, is indeed a sane and civilised man who does not want modern Turkey to go down this route again.
Edward F | 24 May 2012


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