Highly immersive and atmospheric, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a fucking masterpiece. It’s at the same time very realistic and almost poetic, offering us a window into a different world. A world that’s not better or worse but just is. And while the culture, landscapes, and almost everything else is so obviously different, you’ll soon start realizing that it’s all the same. I can’t quite describe that feeling. The feeling that you might be living in any other part of the world and still feel connected to what you’re about to watch.
Now, in order to get the most out of this sort of experience, you need to be ready for it. With a running time of just under two and a half hours and very slow pacing, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia requires you to be in the right mood for it. The time will come, don’t worry. And one day you will be tired of all the same movies you’ve been watching for months if not years. You will get this craving for something authentic but well-crafted. Basically, you will be ready to take a journey into the cold steppes of Turkey. A country with a rich history and culture.
Right from the opening scene, this movie will set the tone and put a binding spell on you. First of all, we start our journey at dusk with a police squad driving through country roads with a murder suspect. He’s there to show them where he buried the body of a man he killed. More importantly, the whole movie unfolds in real-time which makes it even more interesting. So, basically, this is indeed a small-town crime movie only with a different flavor to it. And a narrative that unfolds unlike any of the commercial movies we’re used to seeing. I have to say it reminded me of a much pacier and more vibrant Greek movie Suntan. Mostly because both movies feature a doctor working in a small town.
As the night slowly sets on the spacious Turkish steppe, three cars come to a halt near a well. They are a part of a murder investigation and their main suspect Kenan is about to show them where the body is buried. However, since he was drunk at the time of the murder, he can’t remember the exact spot. And so they go on into the night, looking for answers and trying to get to the dawn awake.
From a technical standpoint, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia rivals any of those above-mentioned big movies. The cinematography is stellar and those wide shots of vast Turkish countryside create such an immersive atmosphere. There’s one scene in particular that simply blew me away and that’s the apple one. As you’re watching it, you’ll get a feeling that I think is similar to the one that you get when you “get” some song, novel, poem or whatever it is you like. And more importantly, it won’t feel like a pretentious film-school emotional milking. And the whole thing gets even crazier when you find out that the scene wasn’t even in the fucking movie!
The movie explores themes in a very subtle and natural way. They just pop up in conversation and shine a light on a certain issue. The dialogues are very realistic along with characters we will get to know quite well. Maybe you’ll recognize their problems and life events. Maybe they’ll remind you of someone you know. Character development in its purest form. This brings us to our cast. They all did a terrific job, although I must mention Muhammet Uzuner as Doctor Cemal and Firat Tanis as suspect Kenan. The two of them along with Taner Birsel as a prosecutor gave very emotional and memorable performances.
After all this praise, it’s time for some tough love. And while the plot and its inherent mystery are able to maintain your attention most of the time, the final third of the movie feels much looser. Like the whole thing lost momentum and simply petered out. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff there it’s just that it definitely weaker after that slow-burning buildup. Add to this a couple of loose ends and ambiguous endings and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia becomes too cumbersome. I wish they trimmed that final third more for a tighter and more compelling narrative.
Finally, this is a movie written and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a man with a specific and unique talent. He can make stories taking place in Turkey feel very familiar and open to interpretation. They can help you learn more about yourself, the people around you, life, and death. Inevitable, haunting, and mysterious death awaits us all. I think this is the main theme of this movie, the demystification of death. Through the gloomy harshness of life, new dawn emerges. At least for some of us.
Before I get all poetic and shit on you, I have to recommend two more movies. Well, three if we’re going to be fair but the third one is a bonus movie. So, first up we have Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree, movies Nuri Bilge Ceylan shot after this one. You can look at them as a trilogy about the lives of ordinary people living in Turkey. You can feel the heavy influence of Russian writers like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. And our bonus movie is something completely different, a nasty and visceral horror Baskin. However, it is a highly atmospheric Turkish movie following a group of policemen so there’s that.
Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, Firat Tanis, Ercan Kesal
Fun Facts: The life of Ercan Kesal who plays Mukhtar served as an inspiration for Nuri Bilge Ceylan to make this movie. He’s a real doctor working in a small Turkish village we can see in the final third of the movie.