In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, burial functions as more than just a part of the movie’s premise where a doctor, prosecutor and police officers escort a homicide suspect across the countryside to recover the victim’s buried body. The whole movie is about those buried sins and memories, slowly uncovered in the story’s progression at a pace that admits its Tarkovsky influence and exists apart from it.
The suspect, Kenan, can’t remember the location exactly since he and his brother were drunk when they buried the body. He remembers a water fountain, hills and a tree. But in Anatolia, Kenan’s description doesn’t really distinguish one spot from the rest of the equally featureless landscape.
Once Upon a Time is a sort of road trip for most of its two-hour-half-plus duration, set with a resolvedly measured pace best represented by long-take, static shots of dark landscapes as a trio of headlights cuts in and across (the movie’s cinematography features some of the most sublime uses of lighting, inspired workmanship).
There are in-the-car conversations, roadside piss stops, guys sharing crackers, &c. But road trip doesn’t adequately portray the whole movie. What begins as conversations between characters in a car becomes more defined by Doctor Cemal’s perspective and his interactions with others. What begins with wide shots of the landscape eventually becomes a cinematic aside with a slideshow of photos from Doctor Cemal’s youth.
But the movie isn’t about Doctor Cemal. It wouldn’t be fairly described as a straight police procedural either. The process of investigation and the routines of its police officers provide the necessary frame, but it’s much richer and resists these genre tags.
The officers try as diligently to unearth Kenan’s memory of his crime as they do inspecting the ground near each site. What emerges here and becomes a common theme throughout the movie is not what the characters are trying to find, but what they’re not trying to find.
Kenan isn’t the only character burying memories, sins and guilt. And besides Doctor Cemal, there’s also Prosecutor Nusret who often talks about a previous case involving a woman’s mysterious death. The prosecutor’s story, like Kenan’s crime and the movie itself, gradually grows deeper as the characters turn up more facets.
In a series of visual rhymes, foreground tree limbs and leaves frame the prosecutor’s face in the instances where he speaks to Doctor Cemal about the woman’s mysterious death. The prosecutor suggests some aspects of human experience, if not most, can’t be explained or even considered for investigation.
There’s almost a sense that Once Upon a Time shares the prosecutor’s conviction toward mystery with a handful of eerie accents like a character’s secluded urination spot being disturbed by the elements to show an ominous sculpture nearby or a scene with a dog strangely, persistently keeping watch.
In response to the prosecutor’s conclusion, Doctor Cemal insists an autopsy would’ve revealed the actual circumstances of the woman’s death. And the good doctor finally gets to perform his autopsy, to discover what’s been hidden.
But what Once Upon a Time does in its slow leak of evidence and what the doctor learns from dismissing the complex human act of burying, whether psychological and so on, illustrates how the truth disturbs much more than mystery does—that truth devastates absolutely.
That the movie begins during the night in near total darkness and ends during the day comprises a visual progression to complement this realization. In the daylight and newly acquired illumination, the prosecutor is no longer framed by the foreground but grows pale and vulnerably exposed. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the light bares a harsher truth, a darker reality.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s titular phrase owes more to the literary device in children’s fairytales than to Sergio Leone’s western (the greatest similarity between Leone’s picture and Anatolia is both movies’ careful, intricate use of sound). An officer in Anatolia uses the phrase during a conversation about death’s approach, what doesn’t kill him is a story he can tell his children.
With its Solomonic grasp of life’s futility, the movie also develops the Once Upon a Time allusion to the stories we tell children into a conjecture about how much our actions influence them (what influenced us, the difference between Doctor Cemal and his youth represented in the photos).
Ceylan even includes an extended digression that follows an apple floating down the creek as if to ask visually how far will the apple fall from the tree? Can future generations escape the sins of their fathers?
Beyond shots of a girl in a village and a fatherless boy running after his mother, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an exceptional work of cinema, a moving picture of the vanities we encounter before we die and those who will greet them after us.