Rural areas all share a few things: acute rivalries, petty dramas, an overarching listlessness, townies. When drama gets inflicted on these pockets of inactivity, it’s both a cause for chatter and a stubborn obstacle to the normalcy that draws a kind of person to such places. This is how Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia opens: with three men seen through a dirty window, quietly reveling, drinking into the night. Ceylan knows this world, where people meet at the end of the day and drink in each other’s garages, and where they continue doing so for decades. One of Anatolia’s most remarkable attributes is Ceylan’s ability to communicate so deftly by showing so little; you don’t know what these men are sharing with each other, as Ceylan only lets you see their expressions. This opaque communication is the film’s chief apparatus, quietly developing Ceylan’s ideas about community and truth.
Two of the men in the opening scene kill the third — the crime is not shown. For the rest of the film, a few policemen and a prosecutor drag the perpetrators (as well as a doctor, a few soldiers, and two guys with shovels) all over the Turkish countryside as the hungover killers try in vain to remember where they buried their friend. Ceylan uses his knowledge of the Turkish steppe to impressive effect; as the film continues and dawn approaches, wide shots of the countryside both mock and accentuate the characters’ discursive exchanges. The men on this trip talk about subjects as parochial as buffalo yogurt and town bureaucracy, and as lofty as justice and mysticism. The three main interlocutors are doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), and police commissar Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan). The murderers only remember that the spot they’re searching for had both a fountain and a tree, and as the film makes clear, this description matches most of the Turkish countryside. As they stop at each new potential gravesite, the doctor and prosecutor develop a connection and a small rivalry, with the former claiming to have known a woman who predicted the date of her death exactly, which leads to a debate about the story’s validity and its ramifications. The doctor believes in causation; the prosecutor argues for chaos, coincidence, and magic. It’s Ceylan’s ability to draw disputes like this out, gently and provocatively, that lets him get away with the elusiveness of his conclusions.
Ceylan develops a rhythm as his two-car convoy moves from place to place. In transit, the conversations dwell on more quotidian problems, like the commissar’s decision to quit smoking or the prosecutor’s overactive bladder. At the sites where they choose to dig, the conversation grows headier and the characters openly ruminate about justice, murder, and storytelling. As dawn approaches, the party decides to wake up the mayor of a local town and have him prepare food for them. This mukhtar, eager to please, has the same provincial attitude as small-time politicians anywhere do — the lamb in his province is the best; the town desperately needs money for a fancy morgue; all the young folks are leaving; can the prosecutor pass his thoughts along to the higher ups in the government? etc. This, again, is Ceylan at his best, drawing out tension by adding a dose of levity. The mukhtar’s rhetoric underscores Ceylan’s insistence on putting a small town’s petty grievances beside grander themes like life and death. The mukhtar’s need for a proper morgue — and what he sees as the morgue’s ability to draw people to his town — provides the intersection for Ceylan’s opposing themes. If the dead can finally be treated well, the living can find more comfort in the routines that define their lives.
Seated in the dark, the men are startled when a woman appears, the first moment in the film when real light occurs (Anatolia fails the Bechdel test pretty resoundingly). The men are spellbound by the mukhtar’s daughter (Cansu Demirci), who distributes tea and then quietly departs; the more sensitive of the two killers has a vision that chills him and makes a confession. It’s among the film’s most memorable moments, one where Ceylan seems to slip out of his determined realism; yet it also serves his needs exactly, shading in the little more that’s needed to understand the crime’s motivation. The simplicity with which Ceylan handles the supernatural allows him to make this phenomenon simply a part of the world he’s created.
The men return to town after a long interval, during which the prosecutor dictates his assessment of the crime scene, one of several moments where Ceylan lets a deliberately clumsy sense of humor into his script. It’s when the film returns to town that Ceylan begins to have the film’s myriad threads meet. Here, the doctor quickly becomes the film’s focal point, and after such a long night, he is ready to be finished with the rote work demanded of him by the case. The most deeply conflicted of all the film’s men, the doctor’s decisions both confound and encourage, and Uzuner is the brightest spot in a cast whose work throughout is immaculate. It’s a testament to Ceylan’s craftsmanship that, over the course of 157 minutes, the viewer never grows aggravated with his unwillingness to explain. In fact, it’s Anatolia’s lingering mysteries that make the film such a gift, especially during the lull that typically greets this time of year for cinema.