Just like the cops in the movie searching for a corpse in the beautiful plains of Anatolia, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia takes its viewers on an arduous journey that doesn’t offer anything satisfying in the end. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan spends two and a half hours telling the story of a team of policemen investigating a murder, painting a majestic portrait of Turkish landscape in the process, but its not clear what he is ultimately driving at. I found this movie to be lethargic and at its worst points, completely lifeless.
The first half of the film centers on a party consisting of police officers, a doctor, a prosecutor and two suspects as they search for the dead body of the person whom the suspects have killed. In between their search, we gain access to some intimate, personal conversations among the members of the group that do not really play any significant role in the overall narrative. Eventually, in the film’s final hour, they find the body and they bring it to a nearby town in order for an autopsy to be conducted. All throughout the movie, we are shown the ways in which the policemen try to follow bureaucratic procedures, and how they consequently bungle up the job.
Despite the movie’s focus on a homicide case, the murder happens off screen and we get very few details about what actually happened. On one level this movie is a dark comedy indicting the blundering ways of smalltime cops who see police procedures as a mere checklist that they have to perfunctorily accomplish without really understanding why such systems are in place. It has its funny moments, including a witty jab at Turkey’s attempts at EU accession, but that doesn’t make up for its lack of narrative momentum. There are some tentative attempts to bring out deeper existential themes in the scattered interactions among the group, but these are half-baked stabs trying to touch on something more profound. Ultimately, it doesn’t redeem the movie’s extremely long running time.
The movie throws in a lot of mysteries without resolving them. There are actually two deaths that happen: the first is the murder under investigation, and the second one arises in a conversation inspired by their investigation that the doctor and the prosecutor have. These two characters have multiple introspective conversations throughout the movie, and we get to know about their personal lives. The prosecutor talks about another death that may or may not have been a suicide. The victim also may or may not have been his wife. This movie offers very few answers, and this can be a very frustrating experience.
One thing I would give to the director is his beautiful and well-composed shots. He is able to beautifully juxtapose the intimate, almost claustrophobic scenes inside the police cars with the majestic expanse of the outskirts of Anatolia. He definitely has an eye for framing his scenes well and using natural light to highlight the contours of the landscape.
There also a few visual red herrings that appear in the movie – in one scene, the camera follows a fruit rolling down the hill for a couple of minutes (one of the more eventful scenes in the movie, I must add) and there is an expectation created that this fruit will eventually lead to something of importance. But it just stops at a river, without any significance at all. Just like the film itself, Ceylan makes the viewers invest in what they see because he presents it very beautifully, but he offers very little in return. I don’t always need closure, but I left this movie needing one and I suspect that most viewers will do too.
Bottom Line: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is too long and drawn out without providing any satisfying conclusions.