The police procedural is as tried and true as a genre can get. Even at its most basic, unimaginative level one can plug in characters and events into the genre’s formula and come out with a reasonably entertaining novel, show, or movie. Master Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s (Climates, Distant) latest, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, winner of the Jury Grand Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a procedural in the most rigorous sense of the word. Though there is no mystery to be solved – the murderer has already confessed – we follow an assorted crew of civil servants as they perform a search for the murder victim’s body. It is a story about people who endure the grind of a mentally taxing, often soul-crushing job and how they go about it. This is a slow and deliberate film that uses its ample running time to create a mood and develop characters while avoiding copious exposition. It is also one compelling piece of Art, its strikingly beautiful imagery bound to stick with the viewer long after seeing it.
After a brief preamble showing the murder suspects and their victim having a small soiree in a grimy garage, the film jumps forward to the aftermath. In a deserted Anatolian country road at dusk, a caravan of cars stops by at water fountain and a couple of police officers escort the main suspect (Firat Tanis) out of the car and ask him where he buried his victim. He claims this isn’t the spot, it must be another fountain. This is a problem as the countryside is littered with such spots. The investigator, played with gruff lovability by Turkish comedian Yilmaz Erdogan, informs his superior, the frustrated prosecutor (Taner Birsel), of this, but the caravan is urged forward.
Plot-wise Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is pretty straight forward. The search party drives on into the night looking for the missing force. They make one stop for food and shelter at a small, impoverished town. In between, the men talk about their problems, make jokes, and muse philosophically about life and death. The film particularly focuses on three men: the aforementioned investigator and prosecutor and Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), the town’s doctor, along to provide forensic support.
This plot description makes Anatolia seem like your standard slice-of-life, slow moving art film. But Ceylan fills the nondescript story with wonderfully understated moments brought together with deceptively simple visual storytelling. A photographer before becoming a filmmaker, Ceylan has a great eye for composition. He and his cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki carefully frame each shot, rendering beautiful, poignant images. He uses extreme close ups to great effect, dwelling on his actors’ faces as they react in wonderfully expressionistic, yet subdued ways. Uzuner’s quiet doctor, whose point of view the film eventually takes, is particularly great at this, his performance including a great deal of reaction shots. The night photography is also outstanding, many scenes lit with one or two dim sources, like a car’s headlight, lanterns or even cigarettes, not just looking beautiful but adding to the existential weariness that persists throughout the movie. One particularly striking scene features the beautiful daughter of the town’s crass mayor as they stop over for supper, carrying a light during a black out as the entire party looks on with varying degrees of awe, lust, and shock. This lapse into overt visual poetry serves as a centerpiece of sorts, though some of the following dialogue demystifies the angelic apparition.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is Ceylan’s most ambitious and accomplished film to date. He has always been a lyrical, visually arresting storyteller but, in comparison, his previous films feel slight. This is a big, sprawling movie that rewards the patient viewer, slowly revealing itself through its arresting visuals.