Dark Night of the Soul: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA

The name—Once Upon a Time in Anatolia— will likely remind cinephiles of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns, which Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan said are not what he had in mind when he made his film. In fact, the title is uttered by one of the characters, Arab the driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), when he half-jokingly tells Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) that perhaps one day he can tell his children about how they spent a night looking for a body in the vast fields of the Anatolian countryside. The pair belongs to a team of investigators, including Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) and Police Chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) among others, who have brought along the two suspects of a murder in hopes to locate the body they buried. Unfortunately for them, the primary suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis) has a difficult time recalling the where he buried his victim and they are all set for a long night.

The eerie landscape and hypnotic atmosphere has led a good number of critics to compare Once Upon… to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but I am inclined to say the Turkish film is a lot more matter-of-fact than the Russian master’s abstract films. The enigmatic nighttime sequences are balanced out by the sobering daylight of the film’s latter half. Ceylan also sparsely injects some very dry and dark humor that is lacking in his gravely serious films of the past. While it embraces the spooky aesthetics of his previous work, Ceylan’s handling of Once Upon…’s complex and ambiguous moral center will be remembered as the height of his young career.

Yogurt and prostate-related jokes are a few of the trivial topics of discussion among the men in the car. Occasionally, they talk about mortality and other more philosophical issues but they always come from an earthy perspective. “Still the years will pass and not a trace will remain of me,” Arab quoted an unnamed poet. The men slowly reveal more about their private lives as the film progresses, though most of the details are left out. When Kenan confesses his motive halfway through the film, we are told that he has committed the murder based on a belief he has yet to validate. As a member of the investigative team retells the story of a mystery from his past, he  has convinced himself to move on under the pretense of a fallacy until the Doctor confronted him with a more plausible and logical conclusion. At the end, the Doctor himself is faced with a similar ethical dilemma at the autopsy table; how important is the truth when ignorance is bliss?

Women—or specifically the absence of women—play an understated yet omnipotent role in this male-dominant film. The phone call from the Police Chief’s wife, the rest stop at the village of Arab’s wife and the photographs of the Doctor’s ex-wife all touch on the delicate relationships these men have with the women in their lives. Even the women who appear on screen barely speak a word. At the village where they rest, the men were awestruck by the beauty of the mayor’s daughter, who served them tea inside a blackout house illuminated only by a flickering oil lamp. The young woman’s biblical presence pierces the souls of the broken men in a sequence when the surreal and the real come together.

Once Upon a time in Anatolia will be playing at the MFAH on 6/22 (7 pm), 6/23 (5 pm) & 6/24 (3pm).

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