Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Review

(2.5 STARS)

Those who don’t take much stock in the old saying “Patience is a virtue” will likely have a hard time with Nuri Burge Ceylan’s Grand Prix-winning Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film, frankly, doesn’t tell much of a story, and it takes its sweet old time not telling it. You’ll feel every second of its 150-minute running time, and by the end of it, there’s a good chance you’ll feel like that time was wasted. But those who allow the film to simmer (I have for a few days, actually, before starting to write this out) will be rewarded. It’s not the biggest, best, or most satisfying reward, but it definitely validates the whole experience.

The entire film is based around a man named Yasar, his death, and those he’s left behind. We don’t know much about him, but his killer—Kenan (Firat Tanis)—buried his body somewhere on the vast and desolate steppe of Anatolia and is now working with those who have him in custody to recover the body. But Kenan was drunk that night, and the area is awfully nondescript, so what should be a routine matter turns into an all-night ordeal.

On the journey with Kenan are an irascible officer (Yilmaz Erdogan’s Commissar Naci), a ponderous prosecutor (Taner Birsel’s Nusret), and an unassuming doctor (Muhammet Uzuner’s Cemal), among others. They travel—in the dead of night, mind you—from stop to stop trying to jog Kenan’s memory, and along the way, they share stories, opinions, laughs, and a few troubling on-the-job memories.

One of these memories comes from the mind of Prosecuter Nurset. He became involved in a case about a woman who accurately predicted her own death. It was ruled a heart attack, but Dr. Cemal, upon hearing the story, informs his friend that there are drugs that, taken in certain dosages, could mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. This story actually becomes essential to the way the rest of the film plays out. Ditto the relationship between the prosecutor and the doctor. The film, which has two distinct sections, uses this anecdote as a jumping off point for questioning the value of the truth. To say how would be to spoil the film’s rather brilliant conclusion, but what I will say is this: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is perhaps the subtlest morality tale you’ll ever see. That subtlety is a detriment at times, but more often than not it’s an asset, and it’s definitely the biggest reason the film lingers with you.

Visually, Ceylan is working on a level few other filmmakers working today are capable of. Though Anatolia has a majestic quality, Ceylan is more interested in capturing its less-than-desirable qualities. It’s a mean, unforgiving landscape, where the air is cold, and the ground crunches mercilessly beneath one’s feet. The film contains a number of clever sequences presumably meant to briefly liven things up. We watch an apple fall from a tree and, in one continuous shot, fall down a steep hill into running water. It’s a lovely visual and quite ironic in the moment.

Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s penchant for gorgeous visuals is matched only by its potency as an Ambien alternative. Though cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki’s vision of Anatolia after dusk is spectacular (especially as it’s realized here—lit only by the headlights of this caravan’s vehicles). The problem, however, is that watching a film that’s essentially about tired and irritated people driving around during the night’s darkest hours is neither easy nor fun. This is a boring, boring movie. When the sun comes up, some interesting developments take place, but by that point, you’ve spent nearly 100 minutes desperately trying to keep your eyes open. It’s hard to truly connect with characters under such circumstances.

The acting is fine. The screenplay (written by Ceylan, his wife Ebru, and Ercan Kesal) is sharp and incisive. And Ceylan’s assuredness behind the camera is almost enough to save the film. But as much as I admired aspects of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I keep coming back to how bored I felt watching it. I had a harder time watching this than I did Battleship, which was indescribably terrible but was also mercifully shorter and moved much more quickly than this. Slow-moving movies aren’t a bad thing (I don’t want to sound like a 14-year-old; My favorite film ever is 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all), but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, despite a few standout moments, isn’t quite good enough to support its bloated running time and sluggish pace.

Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *