Where is the corpse? Who was the man? Why did this woman die? How did she die? These questions are all raised and answered in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia, but they are constantly displaced during the running of the movie by other, more abstract riddles. Why is this film noir so preoccupied with light? Why is it so busy making squalor look beautiful? Is beauty a problem or a dangerous solution? Is it the film’s problem or its subject?
We see a lighted room, three men eating. There is thunder in the air, a dog barks. One of the men steps outside to see what’s happening, and we gather from the heaps of tyres leaning against the walls that the place is a garage. The lighted room becomes a kind of panel in the midst of darkness, an ancient painting of rough domesticity in the middle of nowhere, or in this case Anatolia, which is treated as much the same thing. Later in the movie the setting becomes the kind of desert which dominates André Cayatte’s An Eye for an Eye, or where the bodies are buried in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. And there is another domestic location, a private house this time, where the movie’s travellers get some food and spend a piece of the night. An old man lives there, and a young girl, who provokes most of the speculation about beauty and danger. Again, the building is an outpost against the dark. Seen from outside, light leaks out under the door, round the sides of the curtains. But not ordinary light from rural Turkey, more like the light of some unfollowed or wasted annunciation.
These associations with paintings and other movies are invited by the look of Once upon a Time in Anatolia, by the title (think of Sergio Leone), and by the fact that the plot is so slow-moving – the mind has to occupy itself somehow. One more image will stand in for still more. The screen shows a road winding among bare hills, the time is almost night or almost morning, there is enough light to make out the contours of the landscape but not much else. Brilliant beams flare at the top of the screen, three pairs in a row. They resolve themselves, as they proceed towards us, into the headlights of two cars and a jeep. The vehicles stop at a bend in the road. Men get out. One of them, handcuffed, is asked whether this is the spot. He seems uncertain, doesn’t answer. There is a bit of waiting around, a lot of shuffling of feet. The men get back into their cars, the parade continues. This is repeated, with light variations, I think three times.
We get the plot point. They are looking for a body, the man being asked about its whereabouts is the killer. But why do we need to see them doing the same thing again and again, in vain? What about narrative pace and variation in a film, what about ellipsis? Well, for one thing, the picture is so striking, the procession of these beams across the emptiness so tantalising, that you’re happy to let the story go and just watch, but why is that? Because the lights and the desert also tell a story, but an ambiguous one. The lights permit the search at night, but they don’t find anything. They are not defeated by the desert but they don’t defeat it either. And indeed the body is not found until much later, in daylight. The killer, it seems, really didn’t remember where he had buried it, he wasn’t just pretending.
The posse includes a public prosecutor and his scribe, a doctor, a police chief, a soldier, and a couple of assistants. Why do they all have to be on this trip? So that the finding of the body can be properly certified and witnessed, it seems, and an appropriate document dictated on the spot. This at least is what happens when the body is discovered, cruelly hog-tied, and buried in that cramped posture. The killer says the man had to be trussed this way in order for him to get the body into the boot of his car, and a moment of grim comedy ensues when the law itself has to tie the corpse up again in order to get it into the boot of one of its cars. This killer keeps telling the truth. Although there is one piece of the truth – was the man alive or dead when he was buried? – that is still to be discovered.
Meanwhile the plot keeps getting lost, if not in sumptuous images of bleakness, then in long conversations among the members of the search party. The police chief complains about his job; there are arguments about the quality of yoghurt in Turkey these days; the prosecutor and the doctor discuss the right attitude to mystery – the prosecutor being willing to accept it once normal channels have been explored, the doctor convinced that all mysteries have a rational solution. The question the movie ultimately develops has to do not with whether there is a solution but with what to do about whatever solution one may find. This is a thriller after all, but a slow and easily distracted one.
When we arrive, towards the end of the movie, at the provincial town which is the home of all these people, posse, victim, killer, we are surprised at its extent, the houses spilling over the hillsides. We have become accustomed to the desert, which in this context means the sense that everything is a long way from everything else, morally as well as materially, and we have of course seen nothing but the desert as yet. Here are streets, schools, a rather grubby hospital, waiting patients, a doctor’s office, an ill-equipped room where a post-mortem can take place, and does at great and gruesome length. There are journalists and gaping bystanders anxious to see the corpse. There is the dead man’s wife and son (if this is his son: a cryptic comment from the killer raises some doubt).
The title may evoke a fairy tale as well as Sergio Leone, an empty timeless Turkey, home of isolated, exotic acts of violence, but this return to urban life suggests the opposite, the not very well-off, rather crowded modern world where the ordinariness of crime and unhappiness, or the fact of their frequency, in George Eliot’s phrase, is their most telling feature.
We have to guess at a lot of this, since this stately, beautiful film keeps indulging in the favourite temptation of real movie-makers: excessive trust in the image. The police chief dominates the early part of the film because he directs operations and complains most vocally about his lot; then the prosecutor takes over as he assumes the glamour of the man who is the senior operative, the person who dictates the official report, converts into history what was previously miscellaneous scuffling. He has his personal sorrows too, and we begin to get a sense of them, not least through his rather theatrical way of suggesting that nothing is wrong. But the conscience of the film turns out to be the doctor and by the end we realise why we have seen so much of him, watched his face when he was doing nothing, caught close-ups that just looked like photography. He is thinking, and he is thinking for us. But we don’t know what he is thinking until the movie is almost over, and even then the dialogue doesn’t give us much. It gives us what there is, though, and the effect of all this slow gazing at a thoughtful man is to make the film seem to have an unintentional secret, something the director knows and thinks he has shown us. The doctor is a serious and worried fellow, compassionate. He is a scientist. But a plot summary would tell us this and what we see doesn’t tell us more. The shots of him are good to watch, their lighting is amazing, the actor (Muhammet Uzuner) takes the attention well; but some kind of gap between director and writer (even if the director is one of the writers) has opened up, and the movie has slipped away into it.