Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011): Turkish Film-Maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Police Procedural Highlighting Complexities of the Human Psyche

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb critic Reviews

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Poster, nuri bilge ceylan, turkey
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) By Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 7.7
Genre: Crime | Drama
CastMuhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel
Country: Turkey Bosnia and Herzegovina
Language: Turkish
Runtime: 150 min

Summary: In the rural area around the Anatolian town of Keskin, the local prosecutor, police commissioner, and doctor lead a search for a victim of a murder to whom a suspect named Kenan and his mentally challenged brother confessed. However, the search is proving more difficult than expected as Kenan is fuzzy as to the body's exact location. As the group continues looking, its members can't help but chat among themselves about both trivia and their deepest concerns in an investigation that is proving more trying than any of them expected.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an award winning motion picture directed by Turkish movie maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Essentially a police procedural, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia also serves to highlight the complexities associated with the human psyche. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia serves to be a case study on how humans behave, especially when made to step out of the comfort zone. The world of cinema today finds itself at the crossroads. In a bid to satiate the ever growing demands of the money mongering business moguls the creative aspects of cinema are often forced to take a back seat. The commercialization is not new to cinema, and is something that cannot be done away with. After all, everyone has the right to eke out a living. However, what is worrying is that the business sharks that rule the movie arena merely treat cinema as a money making instrument. This naked opportunism is not only undermining the efforts of the great visionaries of cinema like D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Yasujiro Ozu, Dadasaheb Phalke, Sergei Eisenstein, Charles Chaplin, and Fritz Lang, who had nurtured cinema with their blood and sweat, but is also posing a great threat to its evolution as an art form. 

nuri bilge ceylan in Cannes, wins grand prix
Nuri Bilge Ceylan at Cannes Film Festival
Over the last century, cinema has been undergoing a continuous transformation from being a mere medium of indulgence to being a  profound means of self-realization to being a tool to generate the moolah, but in the process it has seemed to lost its golden glory. A majority of attempts to rekindle the dying spirit of cinema are curbed ruthlessly by the juggernaut of commercialization, but when a valiant effort does succeed in subverting the paradigm, it gives rise to parallel streams in cinema. Amidst the pervasive darkness there are only a handful of creative minds, who are still devoted to fulfilling the true purpose of cinema, not only as an art form, but also as a great source of enlightenment for the masses. These apostles, who have become the raison d’être for cinema’s purposeful existence, are contemporary cinema’s only hope to fulfill its promise as an art form. Today the world of cinema finds itself at the crossroads. While the Japanese, Italian, and Russian cinemas are showing great resurgence thanks to the efforts of Kawase, Sorrentino, Zvyagintsev, respectively, the Iranian, Korean, Argentine, and Turkish cinemas too have been showing great promise. Over the last few decades, Iranian Cinema has seen emergence of auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami, Bahman Ghobadi, and Majid Majidi. Korean auteur Chan-wook Park has delighted the world with his first-rate works like ‘Oldboy’. Argentina has produced auteurs like the late Fabian Bielinsky, ubiquitously renowned for his two motion pictures, 'Nine Queens' and 'The Aura', and Juan José Campanella, whose ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ won the 2009 Oscar for the Best Foreign Picture. As far as the contemporary Turkish Cinema is concerned, it's helmed by arguably two of the greatest filmmakers of our time: Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu (renowned for his sublime "The Yusuf Trilogy"). Ceylan's singularly evocative style not only makes his work poignant and thought-provoking, but, I daresay, also puts him in the same league as Kurosawa and Tarkovsky.

three monkeys directed by nuri bilge ceylan, Turkey
A Still from Ceylan's Three Monkeys
sergio leone's directed the good the bad and the ugly
A Still from Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Ceylan delivered a punch with his stunning family tragedy ‘Three Monkeys’ in 2008. He incredibly manages an encore with his latest flick, the brutal yet brilliant, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The less one says about Once Upon a Time in Anatolia the better it is, for its true delight lies in viewing, and hence any more elaboration than what is needed would turn out to be extremely futile. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is Ceylan’s finest achievement till date, and has already earned him some fine accolades including the coveted Grand Prix at Cannes. The two ‘Once Upon a Time’ movies by Sergio Leone were indeed masterpieces and this is no less, at least one in the making that is expected to withstand the test of the time. Just like with Leone, Ceylan’s camera does all the talking with the dialogue itself taking the back seat. Even in its subsidiary role, the dialogue never loses its weight and packs the punch whenever the need arises. The laconicism in dialogue is well substituted by the cinematographic detail, which forms the backbone of Ceylan’s work. The panoramic shots of the Anatolian Steppes are highly reminiscent of Leone’s widescreen cinematography in the ‘Dollars Trilogy’. The latent wilderness of the Anatolian Steppes is greatly analogous to the secrets that lay hidden in the hearts of the deeply convoluted characters. The deliberate pace of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia adds a great detail to the plot, and also paves the way for character development that is seldom seen in modern-day cinema. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a fine concoction of Crime, Suspense, and Drama that offers a deep insight into the human emotions.The movie also offers a great insight into the complex procedure adopted  by the police to solve murder cases, and the role of autopsy in estimating the actual cause of death.

The Police Search in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, nuri bilge ceylan
A Still from Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia acquaints the viewer with the dark side of human psyche. The stark beauty symbolizes the pain—that the characters have experienced right through their lives—which has robbed their inner peace and beauty, and has made them ugly and brutal. The murder mystery that lies at the very core of the plot is just one small part of a highly complex puzzle that has much more to it than meets the eye. The plot allows each character’s caricature to have multiple layers, a facet that adds great depth to the movie, and makes second viewing absolutely essential. The driver, the police commissioner, the prosecutor, the accused, and the doctor, who at first come across as run-of-the-mill characters of the quotidian, are in actuality bearers of deeply eccentric personas, victimized by the vicissitudes of fate, stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting desperately for their eventual doom. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is groundbreaking in the sense that in it's endeavor to unmask the duplicity associated with the human nature it's not limited to exposing one sex in particular, for it simultaneously succeeds in depicting the harsh and whimsical side of feminine disposition when subjected to doubt and adversity.   
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, night scene, nuri bilge ceylan
The Enchanting Anatolian Vistas in the Night
One very unique feature of the movie is the striking yet consistent difference that exists between what the characters try to project, and what actually is going inside their diabolical minds, something that only the viewer is made aware of, but not always. The night scenes in the first half of the movie are absolutely astonishing to watch. The cavalcade of cars moving ahead in the pitch black darkness, made visible by the projection of their head lights, is symbolic of hope amidst abject distress when everything is lost and there’s is no place to run or hide. 
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, mayor's beautiful daughter, angel faced, nuri bilge ceylan
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: An Angel in the Dark 
The scene that’s my absolute favorite, and that each and every time leaves me completely speechless and awestruck, is the one in which the mayor’s seraphic daughter serves tea to the guests with her pristine, entrancing beauty stimulating a sense of delirium not only in minds of the guests, but also in minds of the viewers. Her piety and pulchritude is incorruptible to such an extent that it has the power to purge the evil that resides in others. The divine glow of her angelic face under the lamp light is worth the luminosity of a million stars in the Universe.

Overall, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a fine specimen of movie-making that elevates contemporary cinema to new heights, both as an art form as well as a medium of entertainment. The movie’s multilayered plot and complex characters make second and probably a third viewing absolutely essential for a deeper and clearer understanding. 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

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  1. another good article.....

  2. Interesting views, Murtaza.

    However, in my view Japanese, Italian and Russian films have NOT lost their vigour at all. Actually they are in the limelight. In Japan, Naomi Kawase and Yojiro Takita are superb and winning recognition; in Italy, Tornatore continues to mesmerize; and in Russia, Zvyganitsev can be called the new Tarkovsky. In Russia, there are a lot of good young directors whose films have been poorly marketed even on the film festival circuit. The old names are gone, yes; but the young brigade in these countries are no pushovers. The reason why these names are not in the limelight is mainly because few critics are familiar with these new generation of film directors.

  3. @Anonymous - Thanks for being a secret admirer :P

    @Jugu Sir - It's indeed a matter of great privilege to have you on my blog. Now, I can safely consider this very day as the official beginning of my blogging stint. Also, I must confess that due to some inexplicable reasons I haven't been following the new developments in Japanese, Italian and Russian cinema with the same vigor as I pursue works of Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bertolucci or Leone. The probable reason, as you put it, could be poor marketing. I have been lucky enough to watch Zvyganitsev's The Return thanks to the great collection of movies presented on your website, which I follow religiously these days. It has also helped greatly in reviving my passion for cinema after I had almost reached a phase of saturation. Tornatore, I believe, has gone into a shell after Malena, but again I need to check out his latest works. As far as Naomi Kawase and Yojiro Takita are concerned, I seriously haven't heard much about them. Now that you have brought it to my attention, I will surely try to catch up on their works. A couple of day back, I watched another of your recommended movies, El Aura, and was completely blown away by the experience. It indeed made Memento appear flashy and juvenile. I would like to thank you once again for sharing your opinion on this blog of mine, and hope that you would continue to guide cinemastes like myself in understanding the true worth of cinema.

  4. Great review. That scene you describe with the mayor's daughter really is pure magic.

  5. Thanks mate...really appreciate it! Btw, the scene was breathtakingly mesmerizing and left me completely awestruck :P

  6. Great review, however the scene that affected me most was the conversation the Prosecutor and th Doctor have before the autopsy about how most suicides are in fact intended to punish someone else...absolutely brilliant!

  7. I think we are in absolute agreement with regards to that scene. Thanks a lot for bringing it up!!!

  8. A terrific analysis, Murtaza. I can't wait to see this movie.

  9. Thanks Martin... I am absolutely certain that you will love every bit of it!!! :-)

  10. Though its glacial pacing will represent a significant hurdle for many
    viewers, the film grows steadily more involving as dawn breaks and the
    men make their way back home, and its unflinching observations of the
    legal and medical establishment at work frequently rivet. Visually, it's
    as gorgeous a film as Ceylan has made.

    Maycee (Seattle Limo)


Thanks for sharing for valuable opinion. We would be delighted to have you back.