Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a movie of vastness and stillness, of epic landscapes and inner permutations of the heart. The wonder comes in watching those varied things work in concert.
The first frame has such compositional beauty that it’s clear you’re in the hands of a master. Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates) opens on a dirty, smeared window, through which we can make out the faint, blurry movement of figures, as well as the faintly glowing blue of a television screen. A face approaches the window and the camera backs away – this isn’t meant to be seen.
We then cut to what we assume is the aftermath of that scene: a caravan of police cars traveling across the Anatolian countryside, with its expansive skies, sloping hills and long and winding roads. The entourage is being led by a murder suspect who is trying to locate the place where a body has been hastily buried. Aside from the scraggly suspect (Taner Birsel), the search party includes a bullying police inspector (Yilmaz Erdogan), a weary prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who is on hand to provide a preliminary assessment of the corpse.
As at the opening, Ceylan uses a combination of elegant composition and slight movement to give the film a spellbinding visual rhythm. As dusk settles over the open hills, the headlights of the search cars send blistering beams that float along the curving path of the road. All of this happens in a far-right corner of the screen, with a tree anchoring the center of the frame. As the cars proceed across the screen, it’s as if a lush landscape painting is being invaded by the cinema.
Similar sequences follow as the search party stops at one location after another waiting for the suspect to remember/confess where the awful deed took place. As he wanders about in the fields with the police, the doctor and prosecutor kill time with conversation, returning again at each stop to a story of the prosecutor’s about a woman who accurately predicted her own death. This lengthy first section of the film continues in such a way, essentially amounting to a variation on Waiting for Godot, with the search party on its own futile pursuit of meaning and significance.
As Once Upon a Time in Anatolia proceeds – and especially in its final third, when the participants have returned to an urban environment – it becomes clearer what the picture might be getting at. Is there a certain futility, the movie asks, in pursuing truth and justice so relentlessly, even after death? The discovery of the corpse (spoiler alert?) reveals a more clinical sort of truth about the murder, but it also consequently threatens to further the pain for the family of the murdered man. Likewise, as the doctor pursues more details from the prosecutor about the woman in his story, he reaches a conclusion that, if shared, would cause additional sorrow for those the woman left behind.
There is a certain sense of resignation that the movie embraces, then, one that’s not mournful as much as it is quiet and contemplative. Rather than doggedly pursue every fact and detail, even to ghastly ends (the movie pointedly closes with an autopsy, the sickly sounds of which continue over the final credits), why not be content in the present, with knowledge that may not be complete, but is enough?
One of those present moments comes midway through the film, when the search party has stopped for a meal in a rural village. The power goes out, casting them in darkness, until a young girl enters the room with a tray carrying tea and candles. As the soft light illuminates each man’s face, one by one, we see in their expressions that the vastness of this night and the burden of their task have been, for a moment, stilled, lifted. Perhaps, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggests, light doesn’t always have to illuminate the entire truth.