The majestic Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2010) showcases Palme d’Or nominee Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s remarkable ability to tap into Turkish culture, whilst simultaneously creating something sublimely beautiful and profound. Opening with a painterly wide shot of the Anatolian steppes, Ceylan observes a painstaking investigation into a mysterious murder as local Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his crew of diligent, yet foolhardy assistants, escort a pair of criminals around the seemingly endless valleys in search of the elusive body.
The most notable element of Ceylan’s latest endeavour has to be his trademark ability to capture the natural beauty that surrounds his metaphysical narrative. Visually alluring, the film’s compositions are utterly sublime, totally mesmerising and, at times, completely overpowering. Formerly a photographer, the acclaimed director has often been criticised for being unable to find suitable material in which to wrap his lush cinematography around; however, it’s these hypnotic and often breathtaking shots that totally immerse us into Ceylan’s world.
Whilst Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is certainly commendable for its technical prowess, within these sumptuously framed shots lays a subtly brilliant script – a gentle mix of profound philosophical ideas and infectiously enjoyable comedy. Amongst the film’s languid pace lies a collection of off-hand remarks and broken conversations which cover the gamut of human existence – from marriage, death and divorce to some genuinely comic discussions concerning prostates, smoking and Clark Gable. Each snippet enlightens us on the current state of Turkey and its diverse populace, creating a delightful microcosm of society working in unison with each other.
One of the most fascinating elements of Ceylan’s latest master-stroke is how the theme of hiding the truth and the motives we invent to justify our ‘little white lies’ subtly connects the film’s cast. Each of the central characters has a truth they’re hiding, and each of them has their own reasons for doing so. The doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) hides his secret to protect the memory of a loved one, Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) hides his out of denial, and the film’s rugged central suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis) refuses to cooperate out of shame for something far greater than his crime. It’s the one facet which links these incredibly different men and the one element that ultimately unites them, making for a fascinating character study of the fragility of human emotion.
This expansive meditation on human frailty is a beautifully presented piece of social commentary, belying its crime procedural synopsis. Never asking questions of its character’s motives, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a deeply involving, meticulously fashioned and fascinating film – and perhaps Ceylan’s greatest work to date.