CIFF 2011: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Turkey)

Thursday (10/13), 6:10pm

Most criticism, both pro and con, of Ceylan’s sixth feature will likely focus on the movie’s first half–a formally sustained 80 minutes that ranks among the more ambitious filmmaking of recent years. This section depicts the long night and weary morning spent looking for a corpse in the countryside of western Turkey, the sort of routine police business that most other movies would acknowledge in a few shots. Ceylan and his writers turn the investigation team’s banter into miniature dramas, drawing out the subtle differences between characters for humor and pathos. (One low-ranking officer–an oafish, walrus-looking type addressed mainly as “The Arab”–emerges as the blank page on which others must articulate their views.) And Ceylan’s camera meditates on the extraordinary hillsides where the action unfolds in super-long shots, often making the investigation seem like the work of insects. On a formal level, these moments are some of the most impressive use of HD video yet seen in movies, with Ceylan adjusting the color so meticulously that each quadrant of the frame seems to have been lit by a different sun. The movie is as sensitive to the subtleties of light as any Vermeer painting, noting the differences in effects of dusk, twilight, moonlight and dawn; indeed, the characters register much like the figures in painting do, as representations of facets of humanity. It’s often hard to think of them in more specific terms; Ceylan’s images seem to spill over into forever.

ANATOLIA is a deeply spiritual work, pondering subjects like murder and forgiveness against the enormity of all existence. Some viewers will reject the movie’s solemnity (in last week’s Chicago Reader J.R. Jones argued–and with full legitimacy–that it may put people to sleep), but in doing so they’ll overlook the warmth that’s no less crucial to Ceylan’s vision. There’s an extraordinary sequence about an hour in, in which the team decides to break from their search and catch some sleep at a village mayor’s home. Shooting in medium shots that create a sharp contrast to what’s come before, Ceylan fills the scene with the minutiae of everyday life: the conversations, conducted in a distinctly Turkish form of communal kibitzing, concern repairs to the village generator and keeping tabs on the young people. It’s a refuge from the eternal perspective that’s shaped the movie till now, and it inspires a feeling of gratitude towards the routine comforts (work, family, hot tea) that keep us from obsessing over our place in the universe.

Just as life is not one long bout of existential dread, neither is it an unbroken chain of simple pleasures; and ultimately one defines his or her humanity by reconciling these two extremes. The final hour of ANATOLIA attempts to do just that, and the movie loses none of its wonder by switching his focus to everyday life. There are no long-shots  here, hardly any intimations of eternity: indeed, the movie ends with an autopsy. But those early sequences still weight heavily on the action, as do the humble musings of Nusrat, the town prosecutor who takes part in the investigation. A handsome man defined a fatherly mustache and unpretentious speech, Nusrat (or “Mr. Prosecutor,” as everyone addresses him) is the movie’s heart and soul, a calming figure to the more hotheaded cops and a spiritual confessor to the intellectual doctor who performs the autopsy. Clearly, he’s devoted years to judging criminal behavior impartially, and his skepticism has been refined into a detached, forgiving beatitude. He may be the closest movie equivalent to Faulkner’s immortal Gavin Stevens, a workaday philosopher trying as practically as he can to serve mankind. (2011, 150 min, 35mm widescreen)

 

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