“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” is a Turkish police procedural and existential road tale transpiring under skies both symbolically and cinematically thunderclap-ready.
As daily drudgery fuses with big-picture issues over a running time of 2½ hours, the film is a potential art house eye-roller, certainly. But writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan spins an assortment of minimal plot lines, recurrent themes, bits of chatter and underlying truths into a captivating drama.
Ceylan (“Climates”) sets up a loosely conventional framework — a three-act crime story — and then throws the rule book out one of the windows through which his characters pensively gaze.
His film contains the texture of “A Separation,” the life-goes-on quality of Abbas Kiarostami and a grisly crime suggestive of David Fincher. Its characters’ quietly expressive faces radiate a disappointment found in Chekhov. As for his own stamp, Ceylan is an immensely skilled and humane story weaver.
Three cars traversing the Turkish countryside get things rolling. Inside is a law-enforcement team that includes a police commissioner (Yilmaz Erdogan), a prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner).
With them is a suspect (Firat Tanis) who has confessed to killing a man. Problem is, he can’t seem to remember where he buried the body, and the search is yielding nothing.
The semifarcical gives way to the feverish when the men dine at a village farmhouse. The mayor’s young daughter makes for a luminous presence of beauty.
The final act delivers a corpse, but more questions. Secrets surface and revelations occur, but some will be buried again.
You’ll need to bring a healthy attention span to this film; its current comes largely in the form of banter, glances and back-story snippets. But Ceylan is an involving storyteller with the depth it takes to pull off the human-condition material and an entertaining sense of absurdity. He combines numerous topics — death and loss, guilt and redemption, country vs. city mindsets, official stories vs. actual truths, a possible ghost — with smoothness and clarity.
There is also humor. The prosecutor, dictating his report, states the corpse resembles Clark Gable, for starters.
The total: a satisfying genre picture, a compelling human canvas and a fascinating look at the experiences and emotions that can shape what goes down as historical record. Not often do you find yourself thinking about a film’s characters and situations so intricately after the credits roll.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Starring Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan, Firat Tanis
Written by Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Running time 2 hours, 37 minutes