Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and joint winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, will be an exercise in patience for the average cinema-goer. At 157 minutes long, ‘slow burner’ only partially conveys the way the film lingers in the moment – think Lost in Translation minus the action, and you’re halfway there – but this contemplative drama veers away from pretentious self-indulgence; stick with it, and you’ll be handsomely rewarded for your patience.
Mood most certainly takes supremacy over plot here. A killer captured by the police, is leading a search party of officials including the chief of police, prosecutor and the local doctor, through the bleak hills of Anatolia, looking for the place where the body is buried. Ostensibly it turns into a night-long goose chase, beset by false leads, a reluctant murderer and weary officials.
Athough it’s based on a true story, the plot almost feels secondary, because Once Upon a Time In Anatolia is as far away from murder mystery as CSI is from rom-com. Set at night, amongst the moody backdrop of the steppes, Ceylan’s film broods with tension, not from the recent murder but from the feeling that each man is keeping something back. Snippets of dialogue, seemingly banal small talk as we watch, unfurl into portents of underlying turmoil as the film progresses, ensuring that viewers are compelled to imbue these little moments with meaning. When the beautiful daughter of a village elder serves each man coffee after dinner, the reactions garnered appear to mirror those inner lives, from the prisoner who looks at her with amazement and gratitude, to the prosecutor, whose imploring look of recognition leaves the audience wondering. With no protagonist revealed until the final twenty minutes, this feeling, that everything and nothing is significant, is compounded further.
If this all sounds horribly worthy then relax; there are perfectly pitched, if rare, moments of humour. Ceylan is a deft hand, leavening even the most grim of scenes with humour that seems utterly believable – the prosecutor’s lackadaisical approach to procedure when the body is found, being one such scene. The excellent cinematography (the candle-lit dinner scenes are reminiscent of a Renaissance painting) makes this a beautiful film to watch too. This may not be one for popcorn hounds, but if you can handle the (slow) pace, you’re onto a gem. (Words: Jane Duru)