“One day, you may get a kick out of the stuff going on here. When you have a family you’ll have a story to tell. Is that so bad? You can say, ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia… when I was working out in the sticks… I remember this one night which began like this’. You can tell it like a fairytale.”
This film seems to me a beautiful anomaly in modern cinema, the kind of film Antonioni or Angelopoulos may have made if they had been born Turkish. A few tweaks and it could become a Michelangelo: verdant rural Italy, two lovers on the run (one, of course, Ms. Vitti), a body or, maybe, no body at all, and the great endless distance, not this obscure blackness. It would require even less to imagine this as a film by the great Hellenic director: a change of landscape, perhaps, though northern Greece could easily stand for the bleakness of the Anatolian Steppe. But the pace, the tone, are pure Angelopoulos.
There has been a murder. A convoy of automobiles travel silently through the night, their pinpoint headlights weakly illuminating the vastness of the wilderness. Men are searching for the body, doctor, policemen, diggers. They chatter senselessly, about anything and nothing: yoghurt, colleagues, urination, lamb chops. The prime suspect, it seems, is leading the policemen a merry dance, or simply cannot remember where he has buried the body. Everywhere looks the same in this bleak land. The absence of light is absolute. We come to understand, utterly, the everyday pain and difficulties of our ancestors, and people who live in these desperate parts of the world. From place to place the investigators roam, shuffling into the darkness to unearth a corpse. Ceylan’s focus is not on the investigation, but on the figures left behind, waiting. A pall of great boredom overcomes the film, punctuated by comic ruminations on death. The prosecutor and the doctor discuss a ‘gorgeous young woman’ who proclaimed that she would die suddenly on a certain day, and did. A revelation will be made regarding this particular story, when morning finally arrives, or so we think. Revelations, in this film, cannot be directly communicated, but merely whispered, insinuated.
The centerpiece of the film is a visit to a lonely village, and a humble meal at the house of a backwater mayor. In this one perfect and intensely biblical scene, Ceylan effortlessly channels the spirit of Tarkovsky, specifically Mirror (1975). The electricity cuts out, plunging them, once again, into darkness. The mayor’s youngest daughter appears from the void, a vision of loveliness illuminated by a single candle, serving drinks to these poor dejected figures. We notice, suddenly, the absence of a female presence in the film, and the realization is tangible. The men are dumbstruck, wordless. Death, in the image of this girl, has become true and authentic, where before it had been a game. Dawn rushes up from the horizon. They find the body, hogtied and desecrated. Emotions bubble to the surface, the effects of this long night finally beginning to show in these men.
The film shifts gear, becoming the opposite of what has gone before: a rationalist chronicle of a murder investigation. “The mythical gives way to the mundane,” states Bilge Ebiri, “the mystery of death is gone.” The body is returned and mutilated, in search of a cause of death. We discover things about these characters, and the murder, that we could not possibly have known in the great darkness of the film’s first half. The doctor, searching for release from this world, watches the widowed woman and her son from the window of the autopsy room, a silent figure of a wordless remorse. The strictures of an entirely logical, bureaucratic world impede upon the epiphanies of the night, like an apple born powerlessly on a river’s currents.
It seems to me that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a fable, and one intensely political, an unyielding document of the masculinity of a nation that once, long ago, perpetrated a genocide. The prosecutor states: ‘You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father. It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults’. The men lament the existence of the mayor’s daughter, doomed to waste herself, her beauty, in a place where nobody will see her. Like Mirror, it lingers in the mind as a series of lovely and unbearably sad images and sounds: the wind in the trees, the silhouettes of lonely figures illuminated in feeble headlights, distant thunder, huddled chrome, the squelch of human remains.