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