Wait­ing to go slow

The lat­est lo-fi epic from a Turk­ish mas­ter is worth the ef­fort, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Comment -


WHAT LINKS THE Amer­i­can West, China, Mex­ico, Mum­bai, the English Mid­lands and, now, the most western sec­tion of Asia? The an­swer, of course, is that all have in­spired films whose ti­tles be­gin Once Upon a Time in . . . . Ser­gio Leone’s western take on the theme be­gan the tra­di­tion, and all sub­se­quent vari­a­tions, how­ever for­eign, in­vite a de­gree of com­par­i­son with that sprawl­ing epic.

A su­per­fi­cial con­sid­er­a­tion of Nuri Bilge Cey­lan’s ca­reer might sug­gest the Turk­ish di­rec­tor is un­likely to of­fer up too many points of sim­i­lar­ity. Cey­lan is a mas­ter of creative in­ac­tiv­ity. In films such as Uzak and Cli­mates, he has found drama (and sur­pris­ing amounts of com­edy) in the most un­promis­ingly static sit­u­a­tions. Then again, you would have trou­ble ar­gu­ing that Once Upon a Time in the West moved at the pace of a rocket.

Cey­lan’s lat­est film, run­ner-up at last year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, looks and sounds a lit­tle like a po­lice pro­ce­dural. A group of men drive around a re­mote sec­tion of Turkey look­ing for a body. The party com­prises a coun­try doc­tor named Ce­mal, the po­lice com­mis­sar, the lo­cal pros­e­cu­tor and two sus­pects. They joke. They ar­gue. They pon­der the dis­con­tents of the area.

If you were des­per­ate to make a link with the Leone piece – and Cey­lan does en­joy such jokes – you could re­gard Ana­to­lia as an in­sanely ex­tended gesture to­wards the ti­tle se­quence of that ear­lier film. For its first two hours, Once Upon a Time in Ana­to­lia in­volves a bat­tle of wills be­tween six sharply drawn char­ac­ters. Re­mem­ber the strangers wait­ing for a train in Leone’s western? Well, it’s not much like that. But tiny echoes do re­main.

The sug­ges­tion that Cey­lan wel­comes com­par­i­son with main­stream cinema is sup­ported by a se­quence in which the pas­sen­gers dis­cuss their at­ti­tude to­wards dif­fer­ent styles of yo­ghurt. Maybe we’re also look­ing at the anti- Pulp Fic­tion.

These are, how­ever, side is­sues. Once Upon a Time in Ana­to­lia is very much its own beast. Filmed in en­velop­ing widescreen, the picture al­lows the var­i­ous strands of its story to emerge with or­ganic leisure. One of the use­less sus­pects has al­ready con­fessed to the killing, but seems un­able to tell one scrap of weeds from an­other. As the car me­an­ders about the ter­ri­tory, he makes var­i­ous at­tempts to in­vei­gle his way into Ce­mal’s af­fec­tions. But the doc­tor re­fuses to play ball.

Filmed largely at night, this sin­gu­lar picture stub­bornly re­fuses to ex­ploit the yawn­ing scenery. But Cey­lan does en­gage with the indige­nous cul­ture. When the party vis­its a hum­ble ham­let – where the men talk long­ingly about the mayor’s beau­ti­ful daugh­ter – we get a sense of a hid­den world, un­con­sid­ered by mod­ern, thrust­ing Turkey. A glimpse of the woman’s shadow of­fers a rare tran­scen­dent mo­ment. Then we’re back on the grim road.

There is cer­tainly some­thing un­com­pro­mis­ing about Cey­lan’s ap­proach. Un­like other slow-cinema spe­cial­ists such as An­drei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr, he strictly ra­tions the out­breaks of con­tem­pla­tive beauty. He does in­clude a gor­geous shot of an ap­ple drift­ing down a sparkling stream. But such se­quences are greatly out­num­bered by those fea­tur­ing un­shaven men squab­bling in grubby cars.

The film’s final half-hour does, how­ever, make sense of those many un­hur­ried di­a­logue se­quences. Af­ter a di­vert­ing, pi­caresque jour­ney, we find Ce­mal (bril­liantly and touch­ingly played by Muham­mat Uzuner) fac­ing up to the sort of quandary that might have trou­bled a char­ac­ter in Chekov. The de­noue­ment of­fers a sat­is­fac­tory con­clu­sion to a drama that, in its scope, rigour and dis­ci­pline, con­firms Cey­lan as a con­tem­po­rary mas­ter.

Yes, Once Upon a Time in Ana­to­lia re­quires psy­cho­log­i­cal in­vest­ment. But the div­i­dends are con­sid­er­able. Don’t miss it. 21 Jump Street, Con­tra­band, We Bought a Zoo and three oth­ers are re­viewed on pages 12-13


The mur­der sus­pect on the road to nowhere in par­tic­u­lar in Once Upon a Time in Ana­to­lia

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