Adam Hollingworth casts a satirical eye over Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia…
Well, I’ve just been to see Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and I must say that I am deeply unimpressed by it. Not only has Sergio Leone made us wait an inordinate amount of time for the follow-up to his thirty year old gangster masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America (and no I don’t accept “being dead” as a reasonable excuse for this), but when he’s actually pulled one foot out of the grave to make a new film it turns out he’s taken a radical departure from the style and content of his earlier films, and become the proud creator of some arty rubbish.
Firstly, I was dismayed that absolutely no-one gets shot in this film. The best parts of Leone’s great epics are the bits when Clint Eastwood / Charles Bronson / Robert De Niro shoots someone in the face. Several times. Only one person dies in this, and they don’t even get shot. It wouldn’t matter if they had done, since the only bit we get to see is a dog finding the corpse’s ear poking out of a mound of dirt, and that is frankly too derivative of Sam Peckinpah for my liking. And my god it takes them a long time to find the corpse. This is nothing new for Leone, since in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly it takes the best part of two and a half hours for the motley trio to find the grave. But those guys have to find a cemetery somewhere in the vastness of America, in the meantime navigating a Civil War, numerous gun battles and an exploding bridge. These idiots can’t find a hole on a hill until the sun comes back up, and absolutely no explosions are there to distract them. Also, why was there no big American star in the film? Clint Eastwood may have retired from acting, Robert De Niro may have given up on taking acting seriously, and Charles Bronson might be dead, but he could at the very least have found some other grizzled Yankee psychopath to go around willy-nilly shooting people in the face, instead of a bunch of grizzled Turkish people stood chatting in the dark about prostate problems and dead chicks.
And another thing… there wasn’t a single cowboy in sight. We have everything else you need for a cracking Leone shoot-out: the beaten-up bedraggled convict, the long and weak arm of the law, a doctor and prosecutor who idly chat away whilst not really doing anything to halt the fallout of chaos…but no gun slinging anti-heroic cowboys. Not even a crap ugly one like Eli Wallach, although one of the Turkish rozzers looks like he could be an evil twin brother. On that point, why Turkey? I mean, think about all the great global locations you can have for the Western genre: Monument Valley California, the Spanish and Italian plains, the Mexican prairielands, the Australian Outback… and the Anatolian hills. Even the title of the film doesn’t have much of a ring to it: aside from Anatolia sounding ever so slightly like America if you’re, say, a deaf person, the film sounds like the opening to a story about warring fast food restaurants. Remember what happened to the last film that tried to use that as its main narrative? That’s right… Good Burger.
Okay, two things. Firstly, for those of you unfamiliar with this column (I’m guessing that’s everyone) I’m being ironic, and I’m of course aware that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (a.k.a. Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da) is in fact the latest film of heavily Tarkovsky and Chekhov influenced filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Secondly, I thought the film was utterly terrific, if ultimately bleakly pessimistic.
The Tarkovsky element in Ceylan’s filmmaking is both visual and spiritual, and the former is apparent from the film’s opening shot: a slow pull of focus from the muck and grime on a windowpane to three characters having a naturalistic and apparently jovial conversation within the building, as it turns out the two murderers and their victim. Visual quirks recur for those eagle-eyed enough to spot them, with the dog absent-mindedly fed outside the building later watching guard over its owner’s shallow grave, and a coke-swilling killer being given his tipple of choice much later on. It is quite extraordinary how much Ceylan and cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki mine so much tone and texture from the photography of a film that largely takes place in the pitch-dark of night, punctuated by the fleeting and artificial golden glow of headlights and later candles, evocative maybe of the man-made filling the void left by God’s absence. Leaves swirl around characters engaged in Pinteresque existential silences following conversations of Tarkovskian spiritual angst.
Chekhov is present in the absorbing, slow-burning and darkly comic interactions of the characters, the focal point to much of the film as obscure personalities, defined at first by their careers, gradually delve deeper into each other’s psyches and philosophies as the search for the buried corpse crawls onwards through the night. Their talk ranges from health problems to incompetent policing, and later turns to darker subject matter such as the beastliness of man and the guilt lingering from mysterious deaths from the past.
Yet as present as the traces of Ceylan’s influences are in the film, the piece is of a style and tone all his own, even if it is ultimately a bitter pill to swallow. The three central characters are all forced to come to terms with the way they view the world as the investigation drags on. The police chief’s repulsion of mankind gives way to a more troubling and detached ambivalence; the prosecutor’s guilt-ridden past threatens to overwhelm the self-deceit that has allowed him to persevere with his life; and the doctor loses the objectivity of a man who clinically observes the human body when confronted with the crushing darkness of the human soul. In the end, all three maintain their delusions by ignoring the true nature of humanity, preferring the legend to the fact. Hence, perhaps, the alluringly fable-like title of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.