Friday, February 10, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da)

The Doctor Will See You Now

Muhammet Uzuner as Dr. Cemal in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's psychological police drama "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia". 
NBC Film/Cinema Guild


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, February 10
, 2012

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's outstanding and astonishing psychological drama is a rumination on police and criminal procedure and the steps that break protocol, becoming anomaly instead of ritual.  From Turkey, Mr. Ceylan's "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" has a quiet, unyielding power that grows and penetrates.  (The film has been playing in select U.S. cities, and begins today in San Francisco.)  At the start we see a blurry image which slowly focuses into a window through which a trio of men sit in the distance.  One of these men will eventually turn up dead. 

In Anatolia, a rural Turkish town, there's Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), a hot-headed police chief with a sense of moral outrage, who continuously slurs a colleague.  He complains about the police "suits" who get all the glory and commendation after grunts and lifers like himself do the dirty work of finding the dead bodies.  A police doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and a seasoned prosecutor (Taner Birsel) accompany the suspects in the murder to the crime scene, which isn't easily found.  Throughout there is endless philosophizing, conjecture and riddle-like phrases, all of which aren't uttered idly even if the backdrop itself is idle.

This epic film moves very gradually and deliberately.  Shot in many extended takes and unbroken shots, the camera lingers in an expansive landscape and often on police officials in the extreme background as they banter about this and that.  Sometimes the camera is up close, creeping up on the back of someone's head, generating prolonged suspense.  One silent Jesus-like-looking murder suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis) has a face often photographed in darkness, a man who looks as if he knows he will be crucified.  The film's spiritual aestetic is as sincere as its haloed visions.  The slings and arrows of sacrifice are quietly suffered by some, while the awful truth is borne by others.

"Once Upon A Time In Anatolia", which takes place over one long night and one day, is a meditation, and its beautiful, stark visions lull and disorient.  Mr. Ceylan doesn't ask us to solve the murder.  Early on we have strong suspicions about who is culpable.  The film's spice is the excitement and tension of how the culprit will be revealed, and to whom.  "Anatolia" is a shrewd exercise in slow-burn, methodical and deductive maneuvering.  Most of all the film is about dedicated individuals and their rigorous approach to work. 

Mr. Ceylan's drama is a smartly-crafted treatise on the pronouncement of procedure.  When Nusret, the amiable prosecutor who looks like Clark Gable, dictates crime scene details or autopsy circumstances it's as if he's reading an obituary out loud.  There's relief and ceremonial reverence in this kind of act: the "closing the book" on a crime, of putting the demons and the evils of its rendering to bed, at least momentarily.

By contrast the police doctor Cemal has a quieter, more embracing and empathetic side.  He's more or less hardened to the results of crimes and has many a theory.  Cemal and the prosecutor have a thrilling test-of-wills exchange in the film's climax that presents an ambiguous take on who pulls the strings of procedure.  "Anatolia" is as much about who controls the way a crime is handled and who writes the final epitaph on it as it is about burned-out men who pine for their wives.  Some know better than to mix the two; others have long since forgotten.

If Michael Mann's police and criminals are flashy, serious and self-involved beings, the police of Mr. Ceylan's stage are weary down-to-earth types jaded by life, lies and the reality that any degree of fumbling on a case will cause huge consternation.  Filled with metaphor, irony and foreshadowing as well as excellent writing and superb camerawork, "Anatolia" revels in its shadowy, silhouetted figures, tainted by both similar and different brushes of life, accident and design.  If you stay in the crime-solving game long enough you become as dirty as the ne'er do-wells you tangle with and arrest.  The soul gets corrupted, as do the motives for doing what one does.  "Anatolia" is a crime drama that allows you to think as a detective does while entertaining the designs of a criminal.

Each of the police officials play the metaphorical role of crime-solver and criminal, piecing together the events and motives behind the killing of a man while offering up confessionals about their own lives, projecting a sense of their own moral failings, if not outright guilt, onto the victim.  Dry, sweaty and murky, "Anatolia" provides little humor but is riveting throughout its almost three-hour running time.  Tangible theories are discussed, presented and dismissed where logic doesn't fit.  Probability and doubt linger.  Perception, process and rumor follow.  We know that in "Anatolia" the most savvy crime-solvers intuit that something isn't right.  The question is, will strict adherence to procedure reinforce the notion that crime doesn't pay?

With: Ahmet Mümtaz Teylan, Ercan Kesal, Erol Eraslan, Burhan Yildiz, Murat Kiliç, Nihan Okutucu.

"Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains unsettling descriptions of autopsy, including sounds of an autopsy in process.  The film is in the Turkish language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and 41 minutes. 

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