Friday, December 2, 2011
NYFF Review #12: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
As ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA begins, we witness three police cars burning up a lonely, storm-swept road which curves through the Turkish contryside. The worn-out lawmen in these vehicles entertain themselves with Tarantino-esque talk about the merits of varied yogurts, while one chastened, paralyzed suspect sits in the backseat (there's another suspect too, but he remains largely unseen). Military, police and felons--all are in the midst of a seemingly impossible search for the burial spot marking an unnamed victim. But the suspects each contend they were each drunk at the time of their supposed crime, and thus cannot remember where they buried the body, or if they even committed the misdeed.
Who is this victim? And what is the nature of this crime? Director and co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan slyly keeps this information from us for quite a time (the film is nearly 3 hours long, but it speeds by). And so begins this haunting, mysterious examination of the evil that lies in wait in the heart of all men, good or not. Riding along with the police is a troubled doctor assigned to the autopsy (an intense Muhammet Uzuner), as well as a grandstanding police inspector, played by a charismatic Taner Birsel. The movie's first two-thirds are enervated by a supremely frustrated, book-following commissar (Yilmaz Erdogan). Some of these characters struggle mightily with the small crimes in their pasts as they each attempt to wind their way through this maddening case.
In telling this riveting story, Ceylan treats us to a unique blend of film noir, gallows humor (this is a surprisingly funny film), and existential dread (the title comes poetically from a scene where a policeman tries to comfort the increasingly anxious doctor). This was the first film that I saw at the New York Film festival this fall; I saw this beautifully Cinemascoped movie at 10 a.m. one October morning, and I though "My God, if all these movies are this great, I'm in for quite a time here."
As it eventually stood, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA remained my favorite of all the many movies I saw at this year's New York Film Festival. I learned later that it's Turkey's official entry into the Oscar race, and I think it deserves to win. It's a wonder, pure and simple. Photographed in a stunning digital widescreen by Gökhan Tiryaki, this recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at 2011's Cannes Film Festival (where Ceylan has previously garnered top awards for his past films THREE MONKEYS, CLIMATES, and DISTANT) sports a plethora of unforgettable images: the burnished yellow glare of headlights trying to shed light on the truth; a head-on examination of the scarred, downtrodden main suspect (Firat Tanis); the careful, lantern-lit steps of a brown-eyed nymph, looking like some sort of ethereal ghost as she carries a tea-tray through a leisurely stop in a small country berg; an accused killer lost deep in the thought of what he might've done; a vigilant dog growling at the police while standing its ground; the prosecutor, smiling triumphantly at his movie-star-like status while being compared to Clark Gable (to me, he looks more like Gregory Peck); and, most memorably, an incredible sequence involving an errant apple shaken loose from a tree by a policeman, and then coming to rest down a stream, where it joins a batch of rotting fellows.
By the film's unspeakably sobering final third (the movie doesn't end where we think it should), Ceylan turns his camera upon the accusers, who all begin to realize they've committed their own maybe minor, but nonetheless punishable offences. The doctor gets a spit right in the face and he takes it in stride, as if it were his due. This moment literally put me in shock and few movies do this. This film is my introduction to Ceylan, but for me he is instantly an intelligent observer of things both big and small. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA saddened and stunned me, and caught me off-guard perhaps more than any movie has this year. It deserves to be seen by all and, likewise, Ceylan deserves to be regarded as a world-class filmmaker.