Film & TV
The Arts
The Middle EastEmail This Article Print This Article

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Peter Anderson

ShameNuri Bilge Ceylan
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
16 March 2012 (UK)



Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a Turkish-language production directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, centres on a night-time search for a buried body in the Anatolian steppes. Ceylan’s film was co-winner of the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (alongside The Kid with a Bike), but unlike Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which took the Palme d’Or, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is dialogue-driven. The medium of film is visual by its very nature, and it is from this quality that films like The Tree of Life derive their power – Ceylan’s work is an interesting contrast.

The film follows a search led by a murder suspect, Kenan, who has confessed to the killing of a friend. He conducts a party of officials – including police officers, the commissar and the doctor from the town where the murder took place, and an Ankaran prosecutor – on a quest to locate the corpse. Much to the commissar’s consternation, however, Kenan cannot recall where he buried his victim. His excuses are diverse: the homogenous landscape, night – even drunkenness at the time of the original murder.

As the party trails from spot to potential spot (pausing momentarily for food at the home of a village elder), the film’s action and depth emerges from the men’s talk. Their reflections range from the mundane to the profound: matters as casual as yoghurt or quitting smoking intermingle with speculation as to whether the prosecutor has prostate trouble – and with more sombre musings, too. The film takes on both death and politics: a line about refraining from the abuse of suspects so that Turkey can join the European Union takes on a degree of unintended humour in the light of the debt crisis. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not propelled through its 157-minute duration by successive action scenes, but consists of accessible and realistically paced dialogue.

The central thread of the film goes beyond the search for a buried body to address universal feelings of guilt and regret. Over the course of the narrative, Prosecutor Nusret gradually relates the story of a woman’s inexplicable death – on the exact day that she had predicted it. The film unpicks Nusret’s intimate relationship with the event, one of many facets of narrative complication; equally, Kenan’s visualisation of the man he killed reveals further hidden layers of meaning.

The core themes of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – sin and guilt – are brought into sharp relief by its poignant ending, when the search party has returned to the town, Keskin, by daylight. “It’s the kids who suffer most in the end,” Commisar Naci reflects. “It’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults.” This compelling and highly realistic film, seeded with Chekhovian allusions, speaks deeply to sin yet allows an act of grace in its final moments. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s lasting power resides in the intimate knowledge of small-town power dynamics brought to the production by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his co-creatives, and in the quiet, commanding intelligence of its social vision.

Peter Anderson graduated with a DPhil in History from Jesus College, Oxford.