The title of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggests something like a fairy tale. And perhaps somewhere at some time to some one it will be, a tale told to a wide-eyed child on a father's knee, asking for stories of the good old days. At least that's what the characters muse about when faced with its bleak events. But the events they are faced with are anything but childrens' stories.
The film centers around a group of lawmen driving aimlessly through the dark, escorting a murder suspect to the scene of the crime in order to exhume his victim's body. The problem is the suspect doesn't remember where he buried it, and in the dark all the locations look pretty much the same. So this solemn caravan travels from place to place seemingly searching for a needle in a haystack. Along the way the men share stories from their lives, getting to know each other on this long, grueling night. What they don't know, is that this night will resonate for the rest of their lives. Perhaps not in the fairy tale way they joke about, but internally, in ways they may not realize at first.
|Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia." |
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Ceylan directs with such understated grace that its shifts in tone are almost imperceptible. It is at once a dark comedy and a cerebral examination of essential human truths. It's a slow burner and casual viewers my find it tough going, but the rewards it offers are great indeed. It does drag a bit in the second half, but as Ceylan reveals subtle meanings of his work it becomes more and more engrossing. There are no "twists" per se, but each new gradual revelation feels momentous, as if the audience is joining the characters on their spiritual and intellectual journeys.
|Firat Tanis (Murder Suspect Kenan) in "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia." |
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
BLU-RAY ADDENDUM: Much like the film it features, Cinema Guild's blu-ray release of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is thoughtful and complex, a comprehensive collection of features that enhance the film rather than simply take up space on a disc. It's a gorgeous transfer, the company's best yet, but what impresses the most is their refusal to stuff their discs with filler. The centerpiece is a 95 minute behind the scenes documentary that takes an intimate look at the making of the film. Using home video footage as well as interviews with the cast, the doc eschews the typical platitudes and hyperboles of making-of featurettes and offers a fly on the wall glimpse at how the movie was really made.
For those looking for a more scholarly analyzation of the film, look no further than "Lost in Thought," a visual essay by Haden Guest, director of Harvard's Film Archive. Guest dissects the film piece by piece, not only examining its themes and construction, but how it fits in the grand arc of Ceylan's oeuvre as well. An extended interview with the director and 48 minutes of footage from the Cannes Film Festival round out the disc, which stands as a glowing testament to one of this year's best films. With Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse also debuting on blu-ray in the coming weeks, the Cinema Guild is on fire, more than earning their place as one of the world's most exciting indie disturbutors.
GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA | Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Stars Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel , Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Firat Tanis, Ercan Kesal | Not rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Opens Wednesday, January 4, at the Film Forum in NYC.