Dark thriller's a Turkish delight
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 11, 2012
Many mysteries are at the heart of "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," a movie of such dark, smoldering intensity that it's easy to forget that half of it takes place in near darkness.
Set in the starkly beautiful Turkish countryside during a nighttime search for the body of a murder victim (Erol Erarslan) - whose confessed killer (Firat Tanis) is too drunk to recall exactly where he buried it - the first half of the film is lighted mainly by the headlights of police cars, sporadic lightning flashes and the occasional oil lamp.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film is austerely bewitching, even when focused on the corpse, which is, yes, eventually unearthed.
The body's whereabouts aren't the real mystery. We know it's in a plowed field somewhere near a tree and a fountain. But there are many such places visited before the police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan) - leading a caravan of cars containing medical examiner Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), assorted cops with shovels and two suspects - stumbles on the right one, after several tries. We even know whodunit.
Why is another matter.
But an even more nagging mystery starts to take shape, almost casually, over the course of the 157-minute film, as Dr. Cemal and Nusret kill time during the investigation by talking about the story of a beautiful young woman who suddenly dropped dead one day, for no apparent reason, after announcing that she was going to die. That morbid topic, and the equally morbid setting, are contrasted with other, more banal conversations between the search's participants on, say, the merits of buffalo yogurt. There's a darkly comic quality to the script, which at times recalls a more existential "Pulp Fiction."
At one point, the recovered body is rolled up in a blanket - someone forgot to bring a body bag - and crammed into the trunk of a police car, along with some vegetables that the driver (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) has found in a nearby field. It's a slightly funny but profoundly human touch.
But the woman's unexplained death eats at Dr. Cemal, a rationalist not given to entertaining Nusrat's vague theories about her demise. It sticks with him throughout the night and into the following morning, when the body is brought back to town, and as Dr. Cemal prepares to conduct the autopsy.
People don't just drop dead, he says, without a reason.
But "cause of death" - what Dr. Cemal will write on his report for this latest murder victim, for instance, and what he will come to learn about the woman in the story - is not what "Anatolia" is really interested in. Over the course of the film, which almost feels as though it's unfolding in real time, Ceylan's story explores not just matters of life and death, but also the nature of truth and lies, beauty and ugliness, guilt and innocence and good vs. evil.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" handles all these mysteries with a touch like a caress, an attitude halfway between compassion and cold curiosity with a penetrating gaze.
Contains obscenity, a brief beating, shots of a corpse and a nongraphic autopsy scene. In Turkish with English subtitles.