Once upon a time in Anatolia (2011)

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Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel and others

It is increasingly rare for a movie to challenge the viewer with the question as to why we watch cinema in the first place. The escapist ninety odd minutes of a Hollywood blockbuster rarely ask any questions except that you sit on your ass, munch your jujubes or popcorn and switch off all sentient faculties. In an idiocracy the masses consume in a passive, zombie-like state. Protest and/or criticism is reserved for when the baby’s bottle is taken away. This piece of cinematic craftsmanship asks a bit more of the viewer.

Turkish director, Ceylan’s almost ethereal meander through the Anatolian steppe draws you into an existential dream world, simultaneously mysterious and ancient. Although beautifully filmed, it is telling that a movie with no special effects, and on the surface a very simple story line, can reverberate with universal themes long after the final credits have rolled across the screen. Compare that with pretentious big budget hogwash like The Tree of Life and Cloud Atlas. The key being that the aforementioned became victims of their auteurs’ self indulgent pseudo-intellectualism while Ceylan’s film pays homage to the struggles, failures and humanity of ordinary people with the necessary humility. To Western eyes the juxtaposition of these universal themes with the exotic culture and setting, should highlight the questions asked on a daily basis of all of us. When do we show compassion? Is there redemption in truth? Do we ever really understand and come to terms with the complex tragedies of our own existence?

On the surface the film follows a convoy of law enforcement officials travelling through rural Anatolia, starting at dusk and reaching its fulcrum at dawn. They are accompanied by two suspects who are supposed to point out where they have buried the body of a man they had killed. During the journey we are shown subtle glimpses of the inner turmoil of some of the people in the search party. The vocal and increasingly exasperated chief of police, who cannot contain his revulsion and anger at the crime that was committed. The sensitive medical doctor who shows a restrained humanity towards the main suspect. The hurried prosecutor who covers his own anguish by playing everything by the book. The main suspect, who on the surface seems like a beaten and guilty man, but may not be the vile creature he is made out to be.

There is a scene where the doctor goes for a leak next to an outcropping of rocks and gets a fright when the intermittent lightning strikes reveal ancient faces carved into the rock face. When he mentions it to one of the cops, who grew up in the area, the cop shrugs and says that the whole of Anatolia is strewn with such artifacts. A reference to the fact that the vast grasslands of Anatolia have been witness to the rise and fall of numerous civilizations since the dawn of history. There have indeed been many ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia’ – this particular event being just a tiny footnote to all the blood that has been spilled there over the millennia.

There is something agonizingly beautiful about any work of art that can use a seemingly small event to describe the universal struggles of mankind. This is such a work of art. The closest comparison for me would be the wonderfully crafted prose of Ian McEwan. There is the same insight into the inner mechanics of human nature set against the vast backdrop of human experience in general. It is a breath of fresh air when a film or book does not try and force all the answers (the auteur’s that is) to eternal and everyday mysteries down your throat, but rather leaves ambiguous traces of doubt in our minds for us to wrestle with as our own conscience dictates.

So put the jujubes to one side, switch on your mental faculties and be prepared to be mesmerized by a piece of true cinema that will stay with you long after you finished watching it.

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