Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Part ghost story, part police procedural and part existential tableau, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is as expansive and captivating as the 2:35 ratio in which it’s filmed. A group of men – policemen, a prosecutor, a doctor and a couple of convicted murderers – make a three-car procession across grey, rolling Turkish countryside in search of the killers’ victim. The body is buried “near a fountain, under a tree, on a hillside,” and seems to be at a location perpetually just out of reach, yet frustratingly similar to where the group searches. The terrain the men traverse has a distinct no-man’s-land quality to it, and evokes a sort of autumnal Purgatory. An amusing verbal dispute over the surrounding counties’ boundary lines suggests that this troubled expedition happens in a fine void between definite places. Ceylan’s filming style, which separates his subjects into trance-like spatial zones (a slow zoom on the back of one man’s head, an artful track around the trunk of a tree), even plants a seed of subliminal doubt about whether these ashen-faced characters are really here, really interacting with one another. As the epic film moves forward with deliberate pacing and relentless commitment to the banalities, bumbles and trivialities of lived time, a hypnotic work emerges about the nature of human beings coming and going. Through a sprawling three act structure that begins in haunted hinterlands and ends in a medical examination room, Ceylan shows us that life is somehow as knowable and mysterious as a stone face illuminated by lightning, a corpse on an autopsy table, a photograph of a younger self.

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