June 2012

Arts & Letters

‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

By Helen Garner

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new movie is a long, brilliantly sophisticated and moving work, knitted together by subtle narrative threads that emerge and re-emerge through the texture of its manifest plot, a murder investigation.

Three carloads of men – cops, a prosecutor, a doctor – travel at night across the windy Anatolian grasslands. Their bruised-looking prisoner Kenan (Firat Tanis) has agreed to lead them to the buried body of his murder victim. But every time they stop, he goes vague: no, the tree’s the wrong shape; he’s sure the field was ploughed. The cops stand about in the wind, stoically waiting. Are they being fooled? On and on they drive. Frustration simmers in the dark cars.

This strange and wonderful film is chiefly about men, and thus about hierarchy. Their idle conversation, as they drive, wanders from the worth of different yoghurts to the meaning of frequent pissing, and the horror they all feel about prostate examinations. Under the aggressive trivia and the grunts of laughter flow streams of repressed feeling. Whenever women are mentioned, tectonic plates shift and rumble.

What’s troubling the tough, pock-marked, witty prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel)? How can his personal history, eked out in brief exchanges with the doctor, be so evasive, so marked by superstition? Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) is straight from Chekhov: obscurely kind, yet sceptical to the bone, and numb with boredom and despair.

This wind-scoured land of exile is sunk in provincial hopelessness. When a cop starts to knock the prisoner around, the prosecutor shouts, “Is this how we’ll get into the European Union?” In a blighted village whose young men have all migrated to Germany, the searchers pause to rest. Their meal is interrupted by a power cut. Too demoralised to complain, they are roused from their stupor by the sight of a young girl bearing a lamp, who glides out of the dark towards them, solemn as a goddess from an ancient poem. They gaze at her like people suddenly blessed.

The men find the corpse, and transport it, grotesquely, to the town. Here, in scenes of gruelling emotional complexity, we learn the reason for the murder, and the secret that the prosecutor has been hiding from himself. But this mysteriously beautiful work has laid bare depths of grief that even the most skilful narrative resolution is powerless to heal, for, like the American West or the Russian Steppes, Anatolia is not only a geographical region but also a realm of dream and myth, where humans must confront each other, and themselves, in eternal, archetypal struggle.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow Notebook and One Day I’ll Remember This.

'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia', Nuri Bilge Ceylan (director), In limited release from 31 May
June 2012
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