Monday, June 4, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

A group of men venture out into the Anatolian steppes in search of a dead body. On the surface, that plot synopsis reads like something that would make fans of big budgeted action-adventure movies gush, but in truth, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an intense character study full of deep philosophical subjects that foray deep into the human psyche.

It's a windy, sometimes rainy and thunderous night in the grasslands of Turkey, far removed from civilization. The two murder suspects have already been apprehended, but one, Mukhtar (Ercan Kesel) is mentally ill, and the other, brother Kenan (Firat Tanis) is slow-minded and was intoxicated at the time of the burial. That's not a good combination, and the result is an all-night search party that elapses into the following morning.

The group is full of doctors, lawyers, militia, grave diggers and policemen, but only three of them matter to us. The three prominent men are grizzled veterans of their crafts, middle-aged and have long been desensitized to the ill-conceived acts that human beings are capable of. One is prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), another is police commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), and the other is Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner).

The three men are simply known by their titles and their last names. It's all you need to know because it is what they have become after years of honing their crafts. All three were married at one time, and two ended unhappily. As three battle-scarred professionals, the men respect each other, and throughout the night they talk about various topics, both work related non-work related, which range from death, marriage, politics to even lamb chops. Some scenes depict characters going off tangents concerning these topics, while the camera shows wide-angle shots with the speaker not even on screen, showing that it is the words, and not the speaker, that are crucial.

Though they are searching for a body, the men are really looking for something much deeper in their lives -- meaning. In between the conversations, they stare longingly into the night, the moon reflecting their faces, revealing lines and creases that can only come with the trials and tribulations of every day life. It is these scenes, which tell us what the characters don't say rather than what they do say, that are the most revealing.

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film is beautifully shot, contrasting closeup shots of the weary characters with the wide Turkish landscapes. The isolated, barren scenery corresponds perfectly with the mood of the film, which is introspective and unfulfilled.

The group of men searching for body in the Turkish steppes
The script, penned by Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesel cleverly manages to weave mundane talk with deep philosophical musings, accomplishing this by using metaphors and prolonged conversations. The film tackles all the subjects that every human being ponders throughout the course of their existence, without delivering any real answers. The actors are all superb, which is impressive considering their lack of experience. Not that one would expect many Turkish actors to be household names, but checking their resumes, it doesn't appear that many of the actors in the film had an extensive film career beforehand.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will cause viewers to ponder the meanings of their own lives, and what exactly it will take for them to find satisfaction. In the film, the three men have gotten close to the top of their respective career paths, but still seem like they are simply going through the motions while they work. Rarely, over the course of their near 18-hour search party to do they complain, and that's because they all knew what they signed up for when they chose their line of work.

The search for the body becomes a little less relevant as the film progresses -- called it a "McGuffin" if you will -- but with the aforementioned clever script, the investigation does manage to come home in the end and tie into the movie's primary themes. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is indeed an example of great storytelling, but the furthest thing from a fairy tale as the title of the film suggests.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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