Notebook: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest film from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, opens with a shot of an obscured pane of glass, a dirty window leaking light and motion onto its greasy surface. Focus pulls us past the hazy façade and inside the kitchen of an auto repair shop; three men sit together, enjoying a joke and eating some dinner. Outside, a dog barks, drawing one of the men outside with a plate of bones. As the dog enjoys his treat, storm clouds gather overhead, threatening. The sense of dread is palpable; despite the good humor, nothing good will come of this. And nothing does.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a remarkable film and, in my estimation, a contender to be remembered as a masterpiece, the second contender I have seen at this year’s New York Film Festival. ‘Masterpiece’ is a word I do not use lightly, and one I reserve for films that have shaken me to my core and displayed a depth of artistry and feeling that is incredibly rare. Yes, we live in an age of hyperbole and yes, the thrill of the new can sometimes overwhelm our ability to recognize what will last, but there is something about Ceylan’s work that transcends. Here, and not for the first time, Ceylan’s incredible gifts as an image maker are put to the service of a complex, multifaceted story that is surprising for the simplicity of its premise and the vast richness of its execution.

Like the filthy glass of the opening shot, the men who populate Ceylan’s latest film are external surfaces betrayed by the complexity that escapes from within them, unconsciously and with tremendous force. Masculinity has always been a crucial subject for Ceylan; from the impossibility of male communication in Distant, to the callous, violent sexual vanity on display in Climates, to the corruption of the individual by his duty that sets the fates in motion in Three Monkeys, Ceylan has always understood the emasculating brutality of power and the impact it has on the lives of men who desire and feel bound to its tropes.

After its ominous prologue, the film continues with the first in a series of expansive widescreen shots of the Turkish countryside; from a distance, we see the headlights of cars as they wind their way along the narrow road. Soon, they arrive at their destination and their purpose becomes clear; there has been a murder and the police, coroner and prosecutor are accompanying the confessed killers in search of the body. Told over the course of a single night and morning, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia spends its time in search of both a body and something far more intangible: the nature of masculinity and its corruption.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is bursting with examples that range from the haunting to the hilarious, the mystical to the mundane. In one fleeting but prescient moment, lightning reveals ancient faces carved in the rock, frightening totems of forgotten men who once populated the now barren landscape; in another, the prosecutor, describing the scene of the crime, compares the face of murder victim to that of Clark Gable before a flood of (clearly anticipated) compliments come flooding back his way, bringing a blush to his cheek. Each of the men in Ceylan’s party seemingly want to be someone else, want to be free from the ties that bind them.

This might seem a simplification, but gratefully, Ceylan is far too gifted a filmmaker to simply lay his cards on the table. Instead, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is sculpted magnificently by the passing of time, by desire. As the night moves forward, into the gloaming of the pre-dawn hours, the disorientation of the search manifests itself in a small village where the party seeks respite. Here, the mayor of the town welcomes the men, allowing his beautiful daughter to serve them tea during an unexpected blackout; as the men drift in and out of sleep, ghosts begin to appear and the daughter begins to haunt their dreams. This loosening of time and its disorienting effect on the party allows them to begin opening up to one another, to begin making confessions, to transform their relationships. It is a bravura sequence, full of hallucination and feeling, that sends the film hurtling toward its heartbreaking conclusion.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Structurally, Ceylan has filled his film with rhyming moments and symbolic images and gestures, none more important than the windows that constantly frame and disconnect people from one another. A pane of glass is a potent symbol for a filmmaker (and, in Ceylan’s case, a photographer) seeking to capture the complexity of life from one side of a lens, and Ceylan uses the divisive power of the window as a way to restrain his characters to hold them back from reaching what they truly want. The film’s final shot brings it home in an immensely moving way; as the coroner looks out the window of his operating room, he watches a mother and her young son walking down a path. Children play in a schoolyard and the boy seeks to pull away and join in the fun. A reversal of the film’s opening shot, the camera generously pulls us in, but the action offers another thought; a sense of loss, of regret and what may be to come.

Like all great art, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia seems to be operating on a million levels all at once; the film clearly deals with class, with the corrupting power and self-delusion of authority, with urban and rural cultural expectations, with the narrow distance between a murderer and a man whose narcissism causes a death of its own. Ceylan has made great films before; perhaps, like me, you feel he has made them exclusively. But with each new movie, his mastery of the form seems to expand, enriching his cinema with an otherworldly, poetic power that I find absolutely gripping. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia stands alongside the finest work in contemporary cinema, a thrilling example of a director in full command of his copious gifts.


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