I had to look it up: Anatolia is a large plateau between the Black and Mediterranean Seas encompassing most of Turkey. Past civilizations left many ruins, but now it appears devoid of human activity. 

In the Anatolian steppe a crime has been committed. A man is murdered, buried where no one would think to look. Two criminals, one stoic and regretful, the other stupid and hysterical, have confessed. There’s no question they should know where the body is, but they don’t. Everything looks the same. Led by a team of working men – cops, drivers, diggers, a doctor and a district attorney – they travel long into the night, rolling through brown hills, passing hour after hour with no luck. I know we buried him near a well, suggests the lead killer, but not this well. Maybe the next one over that hill.

The first third of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia takes place on the road, with some cautious ventures into the dark. The men argue, joke, speculate, spit, piss and shiver in the wind. The doctor sees faces jutting from the rocks. A storm is forever on the horizon. Finally the group takes shelter in a town where human activity feels like a metaphysical afterthought. There may be ghosts around. The lead killer confesses his motive, one that earns him a shred of sympathy. Then the body is found, revealing his evil.

In a brilliant extended sequence that could be a short film in itself, the team digs up the body to find the victim was not only murdered but severely brutalized, and possibly buried alive. That is horrifying. Then comes the realization they have no actual space to transport the corpse and must perform some serious indignities to fit him in the trunk. That is funny. These men are engaged in an exercise of almost cosmic absurdity. One cop realizes this and says he will have to tell the story after returning home. “What would you call a story like this?” his colleague asks. “You’d call it ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia...’”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film, his sixth, is an ingenious balancing act between the absurd and the real, between the myths and magic we create in our minds — and the cold, hard truth. It is about the distance we put between ourselves and unpleasant details so we may carry on with our work. The doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), who eventually emerges as the film’s central character, has no apparent sense of irony. Unlike the cops he does not make jokes as an antidote to violence. Perhaps this makes him a better man. Weaker, but kinder.

Ceylan has said the film is based on a real story. If so, the teller must have been a master of evocation; plot is minimal, dialogue is interesting but stubbornly realistic. The real hook is, surprisingly, the setting. Ceylan looks at one of the most nondescript places imaginable and finds a haunting, unforgettable beauty. I believe a purpose of film is to grant us passage to places we may never see, and on that level Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is invaluable. But even if I stood in the middle of the Anatolian steppe I might never see it like Ceylan does here.

It takes a lot of nerve to make a movie like this. Most movies, even the great ones, are amusements, and that’s fine. Others put us in a state of reverie. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is long, “slow” by design, but generous enough to offer space for thought. Ceylan deserves mention with a short list (Ozu, Tarkovsky, Antonioni) of directors characterized by their lack of interest in audience “patience.” But like them he has created at least one masterpiece. And I’m quite sure there are more to come.

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Zeyno Films, 157 minutes
Rating: 5/5

Note: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was easily one of the best films I saw in 2011, but was not officially released in time for our Best of the Year piece. Such is life.

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