The roads in Turkey can be lonely and bleak. Away from the major cities, the lanes are barely wide enough to fit one car, and there is little signage or scenery. The arid climate offers patches of grass or a tree, making the road seem like a long-forgotten landscape. Harsh Turkish roads are necessary for the atmosphere of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the new film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The austerely beautiful exteriors ease us into a meditative, observant story about ordinary men who do not make a big show about the epiphanies they have.
In the middle of the night, three cars wind through the countryside. Earlier in the evening, a murderer (Firat Tanis) confessed to his crime, and is now leading government officials to the body. Because it’s so dark, the murderer cannot remember its precise location, and the endless search annoys the officer (Yilmaz Erdogan) in charge. The accompanying doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and prosecutor (Taner Birsel) are more patient, using their down-time to converse about a strange case the prosecutor once encountered. The convoy takes a break to eat at a nearby village, and then resumes the search the following morning.
It’s only fair to note the lengthy running time. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is just over two and a half hours long, but even with little action, the movie is never boring. Ceylan’s lengthy takes allow us to absorb the characters and landscapes. The headlights eerily cut through the frame, and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki captures the light so that every shadowy figure looks like it could belong in a Dutch painting. Soon the search establishes a rhythm, and we grow comfortable with the guys involved. Like any long journey, the car ride shows us the true character of the search party members. And because they’re mostly good-natured men who have their secrets, our interest in what they’re thinking only increases.
The tenor of the dialogue diverges as the search continues. On one hand, the prosecutor gives impersonal dictation about what he sees, and the bureaucratic language exits his mouth as if he has a toothache. He takes little pleasure in his official duties, and the familiarity among everyone involved only makes the business more difficult. Then there’s the relaxed conversation, which is about everything from cheese to beauty to human nature. Ceylan shows us what the men believe in a lateral way, a strategy which would not work if he did not know them inside and out. He trusts the audience to follow closely for the slow reveals.
The performances reflect Ceylan’s naturalistic camera work. The men speak deliberately, careful about what their faces betray. As the doctor, Uzuner is the entry point. He combines a gentle nature with a healthy skepticism, so that he’s someone who holds our attention and respect. Erdogan has the more thankless role as the police officer – he belittles the mysterious murderer, eventually kicking him out of frustration – yet his character is necessary. Through him, Ceylan tell us that he knows the journey is difficult, and the officer’s frustration is the director’s way of adding a break. And more than anyone else, Birsel’s prosecutor goes undergoes the biggest transformation. During the closing passages, the reserves of emotion in his face is where Ceylan finds his climax.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has a resolution, plot-wise, although it does not really matter since the overnight search and its aftermath is more about empathy than results. The film’s length may be intimidating, but Ceylan needs the running time to develop meaning through symbols and carefully-honed expressions. I can see how this sort of movie might sound unrelentingly boring. But like Climates and Ceylan’s other work, the rewards are greater than the patience necessary to receive them.