Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Written for Australia's Higher Art  Magazine


Last time I got stuck in bed with a cold, I watched an uninterrupted stream of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. It was great. The Law & Order detective, burdened and made lonely by his fierce intellect, concluded each episode with a total understanding of murder and murderer, man and woman, intent and action.

In the sleep that immediately followed, my dreams were highly organized. I made fast, easy and concrete sense of the murders and murderers that appeared in my sleep. Randomness quickly turned into meaning. The ‘answers’ to my dreamed murder mysteries would manifest as objects and visible patterns that appeared in the center of the elements involved, locking all trivial details into a grand story, all thoughtless action into inevitable action, all seemingly unconnected characters into connection. These formations seemed sacred in the dreams, but mine were the kind of dreams only television could make – that is, they were what a mind would dream after a day of watching too much television.

These dreams brought to mind Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a movie I had seen over a year ago at the always promising Toronto Film Festival Lightbox Cinema. Somehow, at the time, never having seen any of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s critically acclaimed movies, I believed I was set for a Turkish Pulp Fiction where murder would be grounded by humor and a highly crafted narrative. Even though I knew we would be in the hills of Anatolia, I somehow thought we would be Hollywood bound.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is long and airy. We see from a good distance the ancient Anatolian hills and a caravan of three cars driving on a lone, narrow road in the dark. There are thirteen men who all play roles in a murder and its investigation. The view is beautiful and quiet, and strange and familiar. The murderer is sobering up from his passions earlier in the night and can’t quite remember where he buried the body. He does, however, remember it was near a tree and a fountain. The landscape is all empty hills and, occasionally, a tree and a fountain. The caravan stops near promising tree-and-fountain locations. The grave diggers get out of the cars and start digging. When they find nothing, the caravan moves on.

The murderer is clearly upset and everyone in the caravan – the murderer’s brother, law enforcement officers, a prosecutor, a doctor and grave diggers – are equally hesitant and reluctant, but mostly patient. It is not man against man, but man against confusion and remorse and, mostly, man against the night.

As the hills roll by, it’s like we’re watching a theatre stage where the cars are still while the hills move continuously behind them. What unfold are the inane and thoughtful conversations between the men, made deeper and gentler by the painfully unhurried nature of their enterprise.

It is the sad and the little-bit-funny of Waiting for Godot, not the pulp of Pulp Fiction. As the hours rolled by in the cinema, and the early morning light began to dawn on the hills of Anatolia, I thought to myself optimistically, ‘The ending is going to be great’ – hoping, as I always do at the movies, that I would be rewarded in a traditionally Hollywood manner for all the hours of wandering.

But I wasn’t rewarded. There was no great interweaving Pulp Fiction map at the end, no Usual Suspects gift of seeing clearly one man’s hubris, duplicity and logic as the cause for everyone’s misery. There was no Law & Order all-seeing detective.

Because the mystery of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia isn’t why one man murdered another over a woman. Instead, the mystery is women.

In one of the strangest scenarios throughout the night, the prosecutor tells the doctor about a woman who predicted to her husband, with success, her own death. The prosecutor tells the story in a curious, joking manner, though as the film progresses, it’s clear the prosecutor is deeply troubled and confused by his story.  

All the men’s stories, told in the quiet sanctuary of their caravan, are conducted in a tone and manner that matches the men’s faces – the sorts of faces you always find in the movies and on TV and in the real world – the faces of threat, competency, confident carelessness, all-knowing authority and world-weariness. It was those faces that made me think we were still in Hollywood, and on the path towards the pleasure of seeing the godly order behind this particular universe.

Though the movie’s basic mysteries become somewhat resolved in the easy manner of completing a shopping list of little intrigues, the surprise we are left with is the prosecutor’s face. It is helplessly stuck between two expressions. The first is what the movies and the world often demand from the expression of a prosecutor – a nodding knowingness and smile, an expression that reassures others that he is there to turn randomness into order. The second expression  is of a man completely lost and deeply confused in the most private and personal areas of his life. It is a face that makes you feel crazy. 

When we see the face, we realize the story the prosecutor has been telling the doctor is about his own life. We can see the fear, hopelessness and hesitation of the prosecutor as he gingerly pokes into the mysteries of his own actions and existence. It can be strange and moving to see the pain involved in looking at what is right in front of you – as though there really are great mysteries and heartbreaks at every turn.

Despite the greatness of all of this, and despite my misconceived cravings for the delicious secrets revealed of an elegant pulp fiction narrative, I left the theatre a little disappointed. But that night, my dreams wandered and reached, moved slowly and told new stories. They were dreams fit for the dark, and they kept this movie in my mind all year long.