Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's sixth feature film is about a murder investigation in which the lives of each of the men assigned to the methodical task of meting out justice are also under scrutiny—by their colleagues and by the film

The title of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sixth feature film suggests the recounting of an archetypal story inspired by folklore and, like all fairytales, represents an interregnum, a breach in the usual course of events. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is about a murder investigation in “Anatolia,” the historical name of a region, and now a generic term for Turkey’s countryside. The Turkish word for “motherland,” it occupies in the popular imagination the legendary status that the West holds for Americans. 

Ceylan’s characters are tied to small village life, the patterns of which are timeless and universal. Not unlike the stock characters of westerns—Ceylan’s title is a nod to Sergio Leone—the police captain, the investigator and the village doctor, as well as the desperate man who commits a crime of passion in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, are all strangely familiar. The moment we see their faces, we feel we know their stories. But these men also spring from Anatolian soil, from a civilization far older than that of America’s fabled West. While their preoccupations provide an engaging glimpse of Turkish culture, for Ceylan they also represent the absence of mind that prevents these men from living fulfilling lives.

In the brief opening sequence of this crime story, Kenan (Firat Tanis), the confessed murderer, is drinking and eating with two other men, one of whom will become his victim. Afterward, events unfold from the point of view of Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), who accompanies Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), the local commissar, and Nusret (Taner Birsel), the state investigator, in a search for the body, hidden in the bucolic hills of Anatolia. As the men and their drivers and diggers traverse the country roads in a three car caravan, they play male power games. Obvious examples are Naci’s badgering of Kenan—the villager claims not to remember where he buried his victim—as well as his perpetual disdain for the opinions of his subordinates, an attitude that signals his superiority. Another is Nusret’s story that in his younger days he was compared to Clark Gable; this blatant reference to his sexual prowess is his defense against the other men’s knowledge of his prostate problems.

Before the investigation is complicated by the setting sun and subsequent darkness, Naci confesses to Doctor Cemal that his predecessor, the previous police chief, gave him the best advice for solving a murder case: Look for the woman. It is a remark that at first seems merely characteristic of a policeman’s prejudices, but as the personalities of the three principal characters emerge, we learn that a woman is at the center of all of their lives, and Kenan’s as well.

Nusret is haunted by the death of his young wife after the birth of their only child. Doctor Cemal, a recent arrival to the rural village where most of the characters live, is divorced; he gazes longingly at a picture of his ex wife, who obviously figured in his self imposed exile to Anatolia. The love for a woman compelled Kenan to commit murder, although we never learn the details of his relationship with her or with Yasar, his victim and the woman’s husband. Only Naci, the local police captain, seems to have a fulfilling and longstanding relationship with a woman, his wife and the mother of their only son.

Midway through the movie, an innocent young woman transforms, in unique ways, the lives of Kenan and the three principal characters. The daughter of a village leader, she serves the men tea after dinner; her presence amidst the crude, rural surroundings, and during the men’s grisly hunt for the body, can only be described in spiritual terms. It’s a moment of grace. Although Ceylan is not inspired by religion, as Robert Bresson was, a filmmaker to whom the Turkish director can easily be compared, he is similarly engaged in a quest for meaning. His films depict the ways in which men compete for hegemony, as the men do in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, all the time feeling adrift, set apart from the natural patterns of life, until women rescue them.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is the most elaborately produced of Ceylan’s movies. His previous films, many of which he wrote, directed and produced—including Three Monkeys (2008) and Distant (2002)—starred members of his family, most notably his wife Ebru Ceylan in Climates (2006), a co-writer on this film. All were made on modest budgets, yet each is carefully crafted, and obviously the work of an auteur filmmaker. Ceylan, like Bresson, communicates as much through sound as he does through image. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for instance, the sound of barking is a reminder of the victim whose dog we see in the opening scene. The baying is also a testament to the transgressions that have brought these characters together, and perhaps represents the hounds of hell or at least the hounds of judgment.

The sound of barking in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is heard during ellipses, and is used by Ceylan to fix us in a particular moment, in a narrative that steadfastly suspends time so that we may contemplate life by some different measure. All of the men in the film, including Kenan, are defined by past events that remain sketchy, so our knowledge of them is based on the rather mundane and seemingly predictable ways in which they behave during the search, and especially by the recording, late in the film, of the progress of their investigation, the description of their “findings.” This does not mean that Ceylan’s movie is tedious—actually, the opposite is true, because in the course of such quotidian events, we become preoccupied with discerning a deeper level of the men’s personalities. We begin to hope that the fixed pattern of their lives will be altered. Ceylan leaves us there, with Dr. Cemal, his doppelgänger, who also believes in miracles.