An investigation in Anatolia: Turkey's acclaimed Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns with cerebral mystery tale

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan draws on his childhood memories of small-town life. Set in a village in rural Turkey, the movie is about a love triangle, a murder, and the search for a body. It is not a thriller. The grim details of a crime of passion hold no interest for the writer-director. Instead, Ceylan is preoccupied with his central characters—a police captain, a prosecutor and a doctor—who continually sift through past deeds in an attempt to define the present. Their investigative routine, which breeds in them a certain arrogance, a feeling of detachment from those who act on impulse, renders insight and earthly redemption evanescent, yet these men are undeniably compelling. Their stories unfold with the veracity and humanity Ceylan is noted for in each of his carefully crafted films.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which The Cinema Guild releases in January, is Ceylan’s sixth feature, the title a nod to Sergio Leone. It shared the Grand Prix award at Cannes in 2011 with the Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid with a Bike. Ceylan is best-known for Climates (2006), a FIPRESCI prize-winner, in which he co-starred with his wife Ebru Ceylan, and Distant (2002), which garnered him his first Grand Prix. The filmmaker was born in 1959 in Istanbul, and spent his boyhood in the Black Sea village of Yenice, Turkey, where his father was an engineer. In October, Ceylan was in New York City for the New York Film Festival screenings of Anatolia.

“I know these people in the film very well,” Ceylan says in an interview at The Cinema Guild’s midtown office. “The village I lived in was like the one in the film, and my father was like the men in the movie.” Mehmet Emin Ceylan, his father, and Fatma Ceylan, his mother, were the couple at the center of his first movie, a short entitled Cocoon (1995), and have appeared in several of his subsequent films.

“Anatolia,” a geographical area that dates to antiquity, is the Turkish word for “motherland,” and refers to the country’s arcadian landscapes from which Ceylan’s characters emerge. The men are provincial authorities recognizable to everyone who has spent time in rural townships anywhere in the world. “With my characters, I am trying to understand human nature,” Ceylan says in lightly accented English. “Also, when I make films, I try to understand myself and to find a better life.” One measure of how deeply his movies spring from his personality is his admission during the interview that the male characters’ costumes in Anatolia were taken from his own closet. Well-read and disarmingly candid, Ceylan’s equanimity fails him when he is asked about the implied criticism of men in his films, evident in Anatolia in the petty power struggles among the characters. “I am glad you say that,” he replies. “In Turkey, women say that my films are macho.”

Anatolia opens in a service station where three men are engaged in an apparently amicable conversation, although there is a sense of unease in the dark, thundering sky. Ceylan cuts to the credits, accompanied by the barking of the garage’s guard dog, and then to a long shot of the countryside at sunset, the yapping giving way to the sound of insects and birds. A cavalcade of police vehicles enters the frame—Ceylan’s camera is often stationary—and soon we see one of the three men in the back seat of a car. Kenan (Firat Tanis) has murdered Yasar, the garage owner, but because he was drunk that night, he does not remember where he buried his body. The police captain, Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), and his forensic team, which includes Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and Nusret (Taner Birsel), the prosecutor, are led by Kenan to different sites in a futile effort to uncover the remains.

Embarked on a ghastly task, the men nevertheless chat, gossip and spar, often to humorous effect. Their remarks are sometimes subtle ploys for hegemony, as each man represents differing positions in the hierarchy of civil authority. “I think a man is like a child whatever their age,” Ceylan says. “I am, too.” The filmmaker points out that the men’s banter, in addition to representing their rivalries, is intended to give a flavor for country life. “They live with the dead,” he explains, “and they accept it as destiny. Country people create a lot of rituals around it, as when animals are sacrificed. Now, that’s changing in Turkey but not in the rural areas.”

As the movie progresses, the men grow irritable from hunger and Naci physically abuses Kenan. The prosecutor admonishes him for it, and afterward the men agree to halt the search in order to eat at the home of a mukhtar, or village leader. The choice of villages is also an occasion for competition—and humor—this time among the drivers.

After dinner, tea is served by a lovely young woman, the daughter of the mukhtar. The sequence, which marks a turning point in the movie, is lit by an oil lamp, the soundtrack isolating the clinking of tea glasses and the barking dog outside, the latter a reminder of the body’s proximity. “That scene is very complicated and works in many ways,” Ceylan observes. “The suspect admits that he was hiding something, but I had to come up with a reason why he confesses it at that moment in the film.”

As part of his research, Ceylan spent time with a real-life police captain who told him a story that provided the motive. “This police chief said he might hit a suspect for three days,” Ceylan explains, “and the suspect would say nothing. Suddenly, the man would hear the voice of a child, or he would see a woman, and then he cried and confessed.” It is in this scene that the prosecutor also begins to tell the doctor a story which will later lead to a confession.

The woman’s youth and beauty, especially in contrast to her relatively crude surroundings, is startling and unexpected. “The men’s souls are changed,” Ceylan says. “Also, the girl creates a kind of break. The film slows down. There are many meanings. She can also be seen as a madonna.”

In Three Monkeys (2008), and in Climates, which is about a married couple, women also figure prominently in the fate of the male characters. “In life, it is like that, too,” Ceylan observes when asked about this aspect of his work. “Man is lost in the dark. He wants to connect himself always to a woman. On the surface, it seems that this is just about desire, but it is much more than that.” In Anatolia, wives are at the center of the prosecutor’s life story and the doctor’s as well. In the case of Naci, the one call he receives on his cell-phone is from his wife. The ringtone leaves no doubt about the role she plays in his life. It is the theme from Love Story.

Ceylan confesses to being continually befuddled by critics’ choices when they compare his work to that of other filmmakers, but when asked about Robert Bresson’s influence, he welcomes the analogy. “All roads lead to Bresson,” he says. “He is the most important director of all, and he is my mentor.” The French master’s cinematic style is apparent in Anatolia in Ceylan’s uses of sound—and its parity to image—as well as in the absence of a musical score, and in his approach to actors. “Actors love to express their feelings, and this is a problem,” he declares. It’s a sentiment Bresson often articulated, and was the reason he rarely cast trained actors. Ceylan casts some professionals, but in his direction of them minimizes their emotive techniques, believing as Bresson did that the character’s inner life will then be more completely exposed. “Actors must be chosen carefully,” Ceylan explains, “because characters should be very similar to what they are in real life.”

Ceylan downplays, as Bresson did, dramatic events that in most films define the personalities of the characters. In Three Monkeys, the death that so profoundly affects the members of a family happened years before the time period of the film, and in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, while the murder is recent, it happens off-screen, before the main action of the movie. The motive for the murder is mentioned only briefly, and the circumstances leading up to it are dispensed with in the short sequence before the credits. “Many of the men’s motives in the movie are presented as possibilities,” Ceylan observes. “We trust what people say, but most of the time we don’t know why they say things. In life, things are uncertain.”