If you like fast moving action films with lots of car chases then this one might not be for you. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is long and slow, filled with shots of darkly glorious steppes and lengthy conversation. It’s superb. Nuri Bilge Ceylan has directed a film that sucks you in slowly and keeps you there, until suddenly you realise two and a half hours have passed. The story is simple, two men have confessed to a murder and the local world weary police chief is taking them, along with a doctor, prosecutor and assorted other officials into the hills at dusk to dig up the body. Trouble is, they can’t quite remember where they put it now the sun’s gone down. We follow the solemn group of men as they drive from site to site through the night, with Kenan, the suspected killer, a brooding and silent presence. As they pass through the ever darkening steppes we are treated to some beautifully dramatic photography, not least an early scene of the police cars coming into view for the first time, their headlights almost like fireballs blazing through the stormy night.
The story unfolds slowly, and what little we learn about the men unfolds through the conversations the men have with each other as the night gets darker and longer. They start off by discussing the merits of buffalo yogurt, but end up uncovering some (ironically) deeply buried truths. The overriding theme is of fatherhood and loss – we learn that the police chief works long hours because he can’t bear being at home with his sick son, leaving his wife to cope. The prosecutor (who thinks he looks like Cary Grant and has a dodgy prostate) has been in denial over the death of his wife. The doctor is divorced from his beautiful wife and says that he never wanted children although we never learn why this might be (and a poignant shot at the end of the film makes us think there could be more to this than we’re told). And a question of paternity over the murder victim’s son looks like being the motive behind the killing.
In a central and perfectly paced scene, the beautiful daughter of a local Mayor passes out drinks while unknowingly stealing into the souls of all the men, reducing the killer to tears and giving them all pause for thought. This gently shot scene changes the mood of the film entirely – things become much more personal from here on, they’re all searching for something, the body is almost incidental.
Ceylan’s epic film is filled with long beautiful tracking shots, some perfectly composed imagery, moments of humour and moments of sadness all of which add up to a graceful, mesmerising look at life and death. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the closing credits and, despite its length, make you want to watch it again.