This month's programmer's pick is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Peter Walsh, IFI Cinemas Manager, explains his choice.
Beyond all the hype and showbiz hoopla we associate with some of the bigger film festivals, especially Cannes, these high profile jamborees can have a positive effect in establishing reputations for genuinely talented filmmakers whose often challenging work would otherwise go unnoticed by a larger public. The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (pronounced ‘Bil-ger Jey-lan’) is a good case in point. Coming late to the cinema (he was trained as an engineer before taking up photography), Ceylan was 36 when he made his first short film, Cocoon (1995). Somewhat surprisingly, Cocoon played in Cannes and the festival programme selectors have continued to showcase his work ever since. No fewer than four of his six features have won major prizes at Cannes, culminating with Once Upon aTime in Anatolia sharing the prestigious Grand Prix last year with The Kid with a Bike (opening on Friday, March 23 at the IFI) by two other festival favourites, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
These awards have not only been well deserved but also invaluable in allowing Ceylan to develop as a filmmaker. He started out with very scant resources, operating almost as a one-man band, doing his own filming and casting friends and family members in leading roles. This modus operandi was entirely appropriate, since Ceylan’s early films were very personal, even semi-autobiographical, and didn’t require movie stars or high production values. To some extent he has continued in the same vein, and he’s certainly the kind of auteur a festival like Cannes loves to champion. Even so, in recent films such as Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008) Ceylan has engaged more directly with wider social and philosophical issues and even flirted with the use of genre conventions. Thus Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has been described as a police procedural, but it’s not at all like your average crime movie and refuses to provide a neat solution to the mystery at the heart of its narrative.
Poster design by Ali Dogramaci
The film opens with a convoy of vehicles travelling along winding roads at night. A group of officials and their assistants are accompanying two men who have confessed to a killing and are attempting to locate the body of the victim. Finding the corpse proves frustratingly difficult, in part because of the sameness of the terrain but also due to the killer’s bad memory. The police chief would like to beat more information out of his prisoners, but he’s restrained by colleagues, who include a doctor and a public prosecutor. As the night draws on, the whole first half of the film develops into a seriocomic drama about this group of men—tired, world-weary professionals who have their own private and professional crosses to bear. There’s a significantly larger cast of characters here than in Ceylan’s earlier work, and the altogether more expansive scope of the film allows him to provide a richer, more nuanced portrait of his society. There’s also much dark humour in the film’s depiction of this group of functionaries getting nowhere fast as they doggedly attempt to follow procedures in a seemingly alien and hostile environment.
Firat Tanis in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Ceylan has always excelled in his use of landscape and weather, but he now surpasses his earlier achievements in a series of truly awesome nocturnal images, with the characters often captured as tiny, insignificant figures in a vast landscape swept by wind, thunder and lightning. In fact, Nature is a powerful force throughout the film, both visually and aurally, and in a few scenes Ceylan seems to acknowledge a debt to the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky as his camera lingers on images of water and trees. There are also echoes of Tarkovsky in Ceylan’s evocative use of still photographs that conjure up memories of family and the past in the minds of his protagonists, who are no doubt seeking some kind of solace from the messy realities of the present. There’s a magical moment about halfway through the film when the men retire to a remote village for sustenance. Hosted by the local mayor, who seizes the opportunity to make some political points about the plight of his village as everything is plunged into darkness by yet another power failure, the city folk are awestruck by the sight of the old man’s beautiful daughter as she gracefully serves them refreshments, with her face illuminated by the light from a lamp she’s carrying on a drinks tray. It’s one of those great cinematic moments; not only poetic and mysterious in its own right, it also points to the absence of women elsewhere in the film.
“I think the human face is the most beautiful landscape,” Ceylan has said. “The face tells you everything. It’s the only way to get to the truth because, most of the time, the words we say are not true. We have a tendency to deceive others to protect ourselves.” (1)
Ceylan’s statement makes perfect sense when one sees his film. The various stories recounted by the main characters are expertly woven together but their veracity is deliberately left open to question. Of equal significance, one feels, are the untold stories, especially that of the chief suspect. Remaining silent throughout most of the film, we learn little about his motivations or what happened at the crime scene, yet his pained, disturbed expressions speak volumes. Similarly, the victim’s widow, who is marginalised and badly treated by the officials, is given a very moving close-up by Ceylan as she identifies her husband’s body and collects his meagre belongings.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the ambiguities built into the very structure of Ceylan’s film don’t constitute mere obfuscation or art-movie pretension. “I don’t like puzzles,” the director says. “But in real life we have to deal with half of reality and we have the habit, or the reflex, of guessing the rest—because we’re always lying to each other. If the audience doesn’t join in the process, it’s impossible to make it deeper, like literature.” (2)
IFI Cinemas Manager
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia continues from March 16th - 29th at the IFI. For more information and bookings, please contact our Box Office on 01 679 3477, or book online [here].
(1) From an interview with Benjamin Secher published in The Telegraph.
(2) From an interview with Jonathan Romney published in The Independent.