(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
It's an instructive oddity that Ceylan, a filmmaker whose work is almost all intimately attuned with the interior lives of his characters, mainly Turkish men struggling with loneliness and searching for meaning in modern Turkey, is also among the greatest directors of landscape currently working in International cinema. His work as a photographer was at its best when it focused on figures within distinctive, beautiful landscapes, and his work in film has followed suit.
In Once Upon A Time In Anatolia he takes on a slightly more high concept idea than he has before, following a group of men - policemen, a Prosecutor, a doctor, a couple of soldiers - through the nocturnal countryside as they search for the buried corpse of a murder victim. The murderer and his brother are with them, but his memory of burying the body is faulty. "I'd been drinking" he says as yet another possible hillside or field is revealed as the wrong place. In between the procedural aspects, Ceylan slowly draws out his characters as we observe them joke and bicker as they drive down endless country roads and wait by their cars as others stumble around in the darkness, searching for this body.
The murder handily allows for contemplation of grand themes - the proximity of death hangs over the film, shadowing many of the mens conversations - but the numerous characters make this arguably Ceylan's most accessible film. Like all truly great "art" cinema, the conceit falls away and it stands as simply an exceptionally powerful piece of storytelling with a universality which is massively appealing. The characters are a good mix: the melancholy humour of the Prosecutor, with his story of a gorgeous woman and her unexplained death, the doctor, a city boy and outsider, who struggles to understand all that he sees, Arab Ali, the driver, with his petty gripes, Police Chief Nacri, hollowed out by his work but afraid to go home to his wide and sick son, and the officious Army Sergeant, worrying about jurisdiction and procedure.
There is much black humour and character comedy here, mainly in the sparks between these men, but Ceylan beautifully balances that with his studies of the incredible Anatolian landscape - his compositions and lighting here are typically breathtaking - and more poetic passages, with and without dialogue. The doctor gets most of these reveries to himself, whether startled by an immense hillside sculpture lit by lightning as he sneaks off to urinate, to his numb wanderings around town once they have returned with the body.
This is an expansive film, allowing us glimpses into the souls of many characters. The murderer - who, it is suggested late on, may in fact be innocent - has nightmares and grieves for his relationship with a boy he claims is his son. The pathologist who assists the doctor in the autopsy bitches about his cheap instruments. Ceylan alights on these people fleetingly, yet each is given life and heft.
Only women come off poorly, which is perhaps surprising given how strong the female lead was In Ceylan's Climates. In perhaps the loveliest passage in the film, the tired men have called in with the Mayor of a remote town for a break in their gruelling search. He politicks relentlessly while they eat and discusses his family and the villages problems. Then the power dies and in the darkness the men are served tea by his youngest daughter, her beautiful youth illuminated by the lamp she carries on her tray. Her lovely face floats above each man in turn as they take a glass in silence, their faces masks of awe and desire. It is a great scene, sensuous and unforgettable, but it does underline the absence of a feminine character or voice in the film.
This is an old failing of masculine European Art cinema, and doesn't really undermine the power of Ceylan's superb film, which is otherwise beautifully controlled, displaying a fine command of tone, character and pacing.