Monday, March 12, 2012
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
The French film-maker Jean Renoir once remarked (I can’t locate the precise quote) that American film-making tends to focus its attention on a speeding train, oblivious to the fact that a very interesting young woman is looking dreamily out the window back in second class.
That was a long time ago…but I suspect contemporary Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan might agree. “The problem with Hollywood," he remarked in an article in the Guardian recently, "is the audience expects to get the answers like a pill. They expect to know not just whodunnit, but the motives of the characters, the how and why. Real life is not like that. Even our closest friend – we don't know what he really thinks.”
It would be difficult, I suspect, to make a good film about what we don’t know about people, but in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan has done the next best thing. He has made a film in which we get to know people almost in spite of themselves.
The big answer is already right in front of us. The suspect has confessed to the crime. The smallish issue—Where did he bury the body?—serves as the focus of what little action there is, as twelve men, including the murderer and his brother, a doctor, the prosecutor, both urban and provincial policemen, and a couple of laborers with shovels, traverse the barren hills of rural Turkey in the middle of the night trying to locate it based on a few hazily-remembered landmarks.
Astute viewers will perhaps guess a few things in the course of the film about how and why the crime was committed, but after listening to two-and-a-half hours of idle chit-chat, we’ve also become well-acquainted with the men engaged in investigating it. Though parts of the film have a ludicrous humor reminiscent of Almadóvar or the Coens, its overall tone might better be described as Chekhovian.
The world these often heavily-mustached men live in isn’t a pretty one. (One can't help speculating it's because the women are too often kept out of sight.) They put one another down in traditional manly fashion, and they all seem to have domestic problems of one kind or another. A fragmentary conversation between the prosecutor and the doctor about a woman who died mysteriously, shortly after delivering a baby, takes on added significance as the movie progresses. And the appearance of a beautiful young woman—the daughter of the local mayor—in the middle of the night to serve tea also acts as a turning-point.
Those who come to the theater expecting a thriller or a shoot-em-up will be disappointed, but anyone with an interest in human nature—or art—is more likely to be quietly enthralled. On the way back to the car after the screening, scenes from early in the film will resurface unbidden and take on new shades of meaning.