Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Editor’s Note: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is presently available on Netflix Instant.


Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterwork, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, opens with a close-up shot of a window pane, but what is happening on the other side is not immediately transparent to the viewer. Momentarily, though, we see three men boozing and conversing, and one of them–alerted by the sound of a barking dog outside–shuffles over to the window to have a glance outside. Ceylan then creates some distance between us and the building as the man comes outside to feed the dog in the hope of quieting his bark. Yet, overhead, we see a storm brewing, indicating that perhaps something more alarming than hunger is on the horizon.

The scene, which lasts about three minutes and is dialogue-free, is filled with visual and aural clues and cues. We strain to see what’s on the other side of the blurry window pane; and thus we’re immediately invited to fix our attention. And, simultaneously, the barking dog grabs the man’s attention. During the scene, our perception has been attuned, on multiple levels, to the impression that something is wrong. And all at once we recognize at least one thing evident: our instinctive desire to put our lives into focus. Anatolia’s cinematic suggestion is not so much communicating a thematic “message” through reliance on images; it’s more ambitious than that–it’s at once the medium and the message complementing and cohering. You need to watch Anatolia close enough to narrate the details for yourself; you may, like me, need–more than that, desire–to watch this film more than once. All the while, the film asks: What are we to make of this phenomenon?

After a brief title and credit roll, we next see a wide-angle shot of a beautiful rural landscape during sunset. In the middle-of-nowhere outskirts of a small Anatolian town, there is a caravan of vehicles in the distance, illuminating the dusty-path road with headlights. This picturesque, distant, wide-angle view will often be the functioning vantage point Ceylan adopts for his viewer, and this initial shot is, early on, a reinforcing tell. From a distance, we can see the reach of their headlights–what the caravan is able and unable to see. And, yet, from that distance, we also have a limited view of the details of these characters’ motivations and maneuverings. As the night settles in, they will shine their headlights where necessary as they stumble upon new details; and we shine a light of close observation on these characters, looking to find any revelatory detail which might illumine who they are. We are searching–trying to make sense of things, and in the process, make sense of ourselves.

Notably, two of the three men from the film’s opening scene seem to be handcuffed and joined by a Prosecutor, a Police Chief, a Doctor (charged with performing the looming autopsy), a couple of grave diggers, and other embodiments of law enforcement and civil upkeep. The contingent has been investigating a homicide, and now they’re in search of a buried body. And, more notably, the third man from the initial scene–the one who came to the window–is nowhere to be found among the group of men. Is he the one they’re trying to find?

In one sense, these scant plot details form the background of the film; it’s the existential happenings during the night and following day–the narrative minutia–which fill in the foreground. It’s when the various conversations on yoghurt, urination, and ethics happen that Ceylan seems to zoom in–one-upping beautiful landscapes with miraculously lit faces. And, yet, the particulars of these off-hand conversations are indeed shaped by that most particular of plot details: a human being is dead, and, worse yet, he’s been murdered.

How do we respond to life’s uglier occurrences? Well, we strive to make sense of what happened. We piece together the details. Which is to say: we narrate. Not only do we narrate significant events, but we are busy narrating the seemingly mundane. And in slowing down his film to focus sharply on that moment-to-moment, Ceylan invites us to look for and recognize the significant within the quotidian, and to then carefully consider this very act of attuned perceptual engagement.

Perhaps the best way to paraphrase one recurring conversation is to say that it centers on “the darkness and cold” that threatens to “enfold [our] weary soul[s].” Faced with this escalating pressure, we need to de-stress–whether by cigarette or by firing off some gunshots in an open field. And we narrate fiercely. After the Prosecutor tells him the story of a woman who predicted her own impending death only to have it come true, the Doctor–and he very much means it in the naturalist sense–inquires into the “cause of death.” Almost immediately, Ceylan cuts to the Police Chief losing patience with a homicide suspect who is beating around the bush about where the victim is buried. He needs answers and takes to forcing the issue. What is the cause? Where are the answers buried? Whether quiet or explosive, there’s a desperation that fuels these questions.

For me, the most interesting conversations happen between the Doctor and the Prosecutor; the former narrates from a perspective of cold rationalism, while the latter is more open to the emotional and spiritual foundations of narrative. We get a sense early in the film that this night will be a pivotal one for the Doctor when he goes off to urinate and lightning suddenly strikes to surprise him with an illumination of a god-like sculpture. It momentarily shocks him out of his self-enclosed rationale. Is discovering the natural causes of our stories enough to pacify–even more, to explain–our deep anxieties, griefs, and fears? It’s nights like this that call the Doctor’s perspective into question.

While Anatolia avoids making narrative turns evident beyond the necessity of detection, it seems that something especially life-altering happens when the caravan stops to rest and eat at the Mukhtar’s home. When their restful feast is interrupted by wind-imposed darkness, the Mukhtar calls for his daughter to bring candles. Her beautiful young face–illuminated by the candle’s light–becomes something like a humane icon which changes the whole trajectory of the evening and its participants. The scene seems essential even in precluding the film’s later complicated nod to the falsehoods we tell to alleviate both our pain and the pain of others. In an interview with The Telegraph, Ceylan said, “I think the human face is the most beautiful landscape. 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.”

Complementing and contrasting the conversation on life’s difficulties is the motif that the children are at stake. They must be protected from the enfolding cold and darkness. You get the sense that the reason for this group’s desire to protect and preserve children from the inevitable darkness–and, perhaps, their being enamored with the face of the Mukhar’s young daughter–is their innate desire for innocence. We narrate the details toward this particular end–not only making sense of the darkness, but creating the possibility of erasing it. For the child, pursuing meaning is pure joy; for the adult, the need to “make sense” of the story is often a corrupted venture. The young daughter is an image of purity that declares guilt upon the transgressor and confounds those willing only to see by the light of mechanistic reason. Images of innocence have the power to demand confession; and they also have the power to renew and refine our sight.

And perhaps what often motivates our narrating is this baseline longing for innocence; perhaps it’s a mysterious glory we ultimately pursue–a kind of innocence that is found but ceaselessly probed (See Mike Hertenstein’s thoughts on the “mysterium tremendum“–the Big Mystery). At one point during the night, one of the men offers a kind of reassurance about the moment-to-moment and its lurking darkness (and, indeed, perhaps a reassurance to the moviegoer fending off boredom): “Maybe you’re bored to death now. But one day, you may get a kick out of the stuff going on here. When you have a family, you’ll have a story to tell. Is that so bad? You can say, ‘once upon a time in Anatolia,’ when I was working out in the sticks, I remember this one night which began like this.’ You can tell it like a fairy tale.” Ah, yes, the fairy tales we tell our children–the ones in pursuit of the goal to “live happily ever after.”

In life, we may come to deceivingly edit the details in helpless pursuit of narrating a better ending, but perhaps the desire itself is an indicator of a powerfully true mystery which is itself a truly good ending–one whose narration is founded on the childlike faith that each moment has eternal significance.

Well, at least that’s what I’ve uncovered on two viewings.


More reading to accompany your viewing(s) of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia:

Filmwell Review by Mike Hertenstein

Long Pauses Review by Darren Hughes

“One Search for a Body, Another for Meaning” by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times

“Yoghurt and Murder with Nuri Bilge Ceylan” — The Guardian interview

“Nuri Bilge Ceylan Interview” — Time Out London