Few films about Turkey make it to our art-house screens. So there is a sense of anticipation that this much-heralded film from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan will perhaps deliver a critique of modern Turkish society.
Ceylan delivers plenty of insights in his intriguing, melancholic film but they are not observations of how modern Turks view their own society. Rather, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia concentrates on the minutiae of daily life in bureaucratic jobs that could be in any industrialised society.
The characters in this drama - almost all of them male - could come from anywhere. What Turkey does provide is the physical landscape of the Anatolian steppes, a sweep of country with rolling hills and rocky outcrops among fields.
We first encounter this landscape at night as a three-vehicle police convoy picks out the hills with its headlights. Inside one of the vehicles is a murder suspect, who, we gather, has promised to take the police, a state prosecutor and a medical examiner, to the site where he buried his victim.
But the man is muddled and confused, and keeps leading the convoy to the wrong sites.
What director Ceylan is more concerned with, however, is the not the plot details of this supposed thriller, but the attitudes of the men in the convoy towards their jobs.
The police chief is grumpy that the suspect is making mistakes; the prosecutor is determined to do his job by the book; and the doctor who must examine the body when found is philosophical about the grim task.
In fact, this film is very much about waiting for something to happen - which gives each participant in a long, sleepless night of searching the chance to reflect on their own lives. Small incidents spark reflection, such as their visit to a mayor's house in the middle of the night for some supper.
The mayor's attractive young daughter serves them tea and her beautiful face is reflected in the light from the fire. Her presence in this lonely, isolated village causes the men to reflect on her possible future. Will she be condemned to a village life serving her father, or will she escape this rural family servitude? The men are more concerned with their own futures and in many ways each is facing an existential crisis.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia might be too slow and meditative for some cinematic tastes but for those prepared to go with the flow, the rewards are there in its perceptiveness of how men approach their jobs and accommodate their feelings to what the future holds.
At 137 minutes it might be too long for some, but the mark of a truly great film is that time never really matters. It's the telling detail, the snatch of conversation, the suggestion of how people are feeling that matters and Ceylan is a master of pulling the small details together into a coherent piece of philosophical cinema.
While the first half of the film is shot in the dark, the second half concerns the eventual discovery of the body and the autopsy that must be performed.
That the motives of the suspected murderer are never fully explained hardly matters. The film suggests things, rather than spelling them out. It is as if the viewer were a permanent observer from the outside, perched on the edge of discovery but never really getting there. Much like life itself.Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has been called a masterpiece and there is some justification in that statement. It's is one of the most intriguing and rewarding films this year.
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