At The London Film Festival 2011 – Once Upon A Time In Anatolia review
My last LFF review, and surely the one that everybody has been waiting to read. I mean, two-and-three-quarter hour Turkish police procedurals are popular, right?
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
Dauntingly long anti-epic, rich in novelistic texture; it’s possibly the defining film in what I’m calling the New Boredom
Usually, films whose title begins Once Upon A Time In… gravitate towards the Sergio Leone model: huge, expansive, operatic. But, despite its impressive Cinemascope landscapes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s dauntingly long police procedural takes the opposite tack: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is an anti-epic, focussing on the mundane trudge of policework until it achieves a depth of novelistic texture rare in modern film.
The story is this: a criminal has confessed to a murder, but cannot remember where the body is buried. That’s pretty much it: a plot beat that would account for, ooh, a minute of a conventional Hollywood movie here gets expanded to two-and-three-quarters hours of screen-time. Following on from films as diverse as Police, Adjective and Meek’s Cutoff, both of which similarly turned genre inside-down to focus on a sheer lack of drama, Ceylan’s is possibly the most extreme and demanding example of a movement I’m calling the New Boredom.
How does Ceylan fill the time? There’s a lot of deadpan humour (this is the guy who made the brilliant, droll comedy Uzak, after all), as the mundanity of the situation causes the assembled cops, doctor, prosecutor and hangers-on to bicker, tell stories and make mistakes in their half-asleep torpor. Nudged a little further into farce, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia would be a great comedy of bureaucracy, but the most overtly humourous flourishes – notably an over-zealous sergeant obsessed with the borders of municipal jurisdiction – are grace notes amongst some much richer and deeper.
Mostly, the talk externalises the team’s inner thoughts, and a great ensemble cast seizes the opportunity lent by the run-time to push beyond broad strokes into three-dimensional characterisation. For everyone, it’s a long dark night of the soul – usually, in movie cliché, that means some extraordinary event causes a transformation of character. Here, it’s more subtle and nuanced: it’s the sheer length of time that causes these people to reflect on their own lives, as anecdotes and chance remarks bring out submerged memories and regrets. In one particularly astounding moment, Ceylan films a conversation from the back of the speakers’ heads…but when he cuts to show their faces, their lips aren’t moving: a chorus of internal monologues.
And gradually a picture emerges of an entire society. Anatolia, the rural heartland of Turkey, is dying out, as its most adventurous and inquisitive citizens flee to the big cities or abroad, leaving hapless incompetents to run a crime scene – the kind of people who try to find a burial site in the middle of the night, but haven’t even brought a body bag. Yes, they have mobile phones and laptops, but they seem to treat these objects almost as magic artefacts, making them part of the ritual fabric of the region along with the apple that, in one audacious moment, is seen falling out of a tree, rolling down a hill and then floating down a stream.
Into this environment, the doctor – a young, gifted city boy –is an anomaly until he, too, becomes affected (or infected?) by a timeless, unending world where a girl lighting lamps during a power cut looks like an angelic vision. As another character tells him, this is the kind of world of which fairytales are told, and one day he might well tell the story of how, once upon a time in Anatolia, he went looking for a body. But, hopefully, without needing to tell the story quite as slowly as Ceylan.