Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has a quietly devastating ending that is well worth the two-and-a-half hours of meandering and philosophising it takes to get there. As any cliché spouting traveller will tell you, the journey is just as important as the destination. You can’t expect a slow burn drama to payoff spectacularly unless it burns slowly, and this is precisely what Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan orchestrates in this masterful murder-mystery.
A police officer (Yilmaz Erdogan), a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), and some accomplices head into the rural outskirts of Turkey, where a confessed killer (Firat Tanis) promises to show them where he buried his victim. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell one field in the Anatolian countryside from another, and the gang drives around aimlessly for much of the night as their search grows more and more desperate. The men spend the trip discussing seemingly random topics; that is, when they’re not complaining about their jobs and each other. The actors are astoundingly naturalistic, aided by dialogue in turns profound and hilarious (the police officer is chided for beating a suspect in frustration: “Is this how we’ll get into the European Union?”).
They stop briefly for some food in a small town, where the murderer is visited by a ghostly presence. The guilt has become too much for him, though what he feels guilt for is more mystifying than we could have previously imagined. I’m not going to reveal whether or not the body is ever found, although I will say the circumstances surrounding the crime are (somewhat ambiguously) exposed in the final moments. It’s a subtle enough reveal that a moviegoer could easily miss it, but Ceylan and his co-writers Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal litter the picture with clues to point us in the direction of a particular reading.
Most impressive in the cast are Birsel and Uzuner; the former relates to the latter the true tale of a beautiful woman who accurately predicted the date of her death five years in advance. The doctor is dubious, and spends much of the movie trying to explain this phenomenon, while the prosecutor is committed to his story’s magical dénouement. When the doctor settles on a rational justification, it has a profound effect on the both of them. This story is key to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, in which the dead loom large over our subjects and guilt lingers beyond the closing credits. Women are rarely seen and barely heard from, but they inform almost every action taken by our main characters. Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki doesn’t just capture gorgeous night-time vistas; he lights the way for these hauntings (seen and unseen).
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is now showing in Australian cinemas.