All Noise And No Action: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (2011)

A deceptively simple film, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia displays what is possible in the burgeoning Turkish film culture in near epic proportions.  While the film was initially released in Turkey in 2011, it has come state side within the last year, causing it to receive serious hype and Oscar buzz and deservedly so since it proves to be a stroke of brilliance by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan who would receive a co-award for the Grand Prix prize at Cannes.  The film is hefty and heavy both in its length and its commentaries, manages to exist in the matter of less than twenty-four hours, while also maintaining relatively minimal setting changes.  Viewers are likely to initially become involved with the cinematography of the work, perhaps looking over the rapid dialogue, much of which is lost on the ears and eyes of non-Turkish speakers.  Once Upon A Time in Anatolia reflects one of those rare treasures of a film where you can clearly see every decision and moment carefully working under the hands of the director.  At no point is a pause, a lingering shot or quick glance by an actor accidental, in fact, I would gladly compare this film to Kiarostami's Close-Up, although Ceylan's film is far less concerned with the metaphysical nature of filmmaking.  Furthermore, the film makes no apologies about its cultural references and actions being non-Western, although the entire film has a certain element of familiarity about it, after all it is from Turkey, a global location nearly perfectly divided between the Western and Eastern world.  Also, any cinephile will be quick to realize that the phrase "once upon a time" gets thrown around quite frequently when discussing film titles, whether it be large areas and concepts like the West, or moments in a nation's identity as is the case with a certain Scorsese film.  Yet, what makes Once Upon A Time in Anatolia distinct with its title choice, is that it is indeed about time in a very specific sense, and not a broader period, making its fairy tale reflection all too appropriate, as well as terribly ironic, considering that nothing about the world Ceylan depicts could ever be considered idyllic.

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, again is deceptive in its seeming plainness, particularly concerning a plot almost entirely focused on searching for a buried body.  This task of uncovering a secret takes up nearly two hours of the plot, only to become shoved to the side when those involved return to their precinct to piece together the murder.  Like early Kevin Smith films, or a Wilt Stillman film, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is about the conversations and the reflections shared between people, whether it be waxing poetic about buffalo yogurt and lamp chops, or truly contesting the nature of human existence.  Characters include the no-nonsense prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) whose job is to find this body, even if it means driving his team to passing out, yet even his bullheaded ways can lead to moments of serene humor, as is clear when they finally discover the dead body and he fancies its features to that of Clark Gable.  Similarly there is the doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), a somewhat reserved man who seems to consider all occurrences relative to their factual explanation, yet even when he receives some distinct factual discovers, the irrationality of the acts which led to their happening cause him to consider every sort of grounded notion he previously held, leading to a rather heart-wrenching moment in which he stares out a window and considers the fate of children, a group in which the narrative seems particularly concerned for, in that adults terrible decisions invariably affect their future.  Finally, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is distinctly about the fleeting moments of poetics that go unnoticed, whether it be as simple as an apple floating down a creek or a man falling in love with a young woman lit only by candlelight.  A film chiefly concerned with time, Ceylan manages to layer the various forms of time into a lengthy, yet absolutely watchable meditation on cycles, transcendence and expectations in regards to various temporal existences.

I mention time as being something of notoriety within a film that boldly uses time within its title.  I recall taking a humanities course during my undergraduate studies, in which an art theory professor contested that Edvard Munch's The Scream possesses well over twenty different types of studies on time within its seemingly simple execution.  I remember thinking, at the time, that it was the most pretentious thing I had ever heard, however, as I learned more about theory and the manner with which time affects ones existence both philosophically and physically I began to understand his argument.  I would, as such, argue that Once Upon A Time in Anatolia considers various forms of time, although nowhere near as many as the classic painting.  For example, the film on an obvious level considers the battle against time, in that the crew must find a buried body in which they fight against the physical affects of erosion on the body over time.  However, the conversations in the film suggest a serious concern with existential time, as well as lingering on the past, both variants of time that the human existence has very little control over, unless of course we manage to build time machines at some point. Perhaps the most poignant and emotive consideration of time in this film comes when the older men attempt to rationalize the world of children something they see as being destroyed constantly by their terrible decision, yet at no point do they seem intent on changing their ways.  Instead, it takes physical confrontations by children for them to reflect on the tragedy of their wrongdoings, at moments coming via attacks by rocks, while at other instances as a pseudo-play being acted out through a window sill in the police precinct.  Time in this film, as always, is profusely relative, however, it seems to suggest that on rare occasions it can coalesce with cinematic and poetic magnitude.

Key Scene:  The apple rolling down the hill scene has certainly occurred before in cinema, yet it is so well placed in this film that it is hard not to revel in its beauty.

Another offering via Netflix that should not be overlooked, because considering its "foreign" nature it could disappear without explanation.

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