The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 2003 breakout film, Distant, had him pegged by many as a master of Jarmuschian deadpan, a static chronicler of the drolly pathetic lives of lonely, submerged characters. But subsequent films have revealed the director to be more of a seeker, both in form and content, delving into intensely intimate relationship dramas and neoclassical family tragedies. All along the way, however, he has flirted with abstraction —occasional glimpses of his characters' dreams and mysterious stylistic flourishes that reveal a fondness for inhabiting that middle ground between the real and the otherworldly.
With his latest, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan plunges headlong into a world that is decidedly unlike any we've seen. It's a film that initially seems to be set entirely in the realm of the abstract — a place of dreams, memories, myth, and a solemn coating of uncertain guilt.
The first couple of hours of Anatolia feel like a police procedural as imagined by Andrei Tarkovsky: Over the course of one night, a small group of men — some cops, a prosecutor, a doctor, two murder suspects — wander the hills of a rural region of Turkey looking for a buried body. The brooding chief suspect, who already appears to have confessed, doesn't quite remember the spot, especially because it's now pitch-black night. The gruffly practical police chief complains. Perhaps trying to kill time, the insistent prosecutor asks the melancholy doctor about a mysterious ailment endured by a woman he once knew. Nobody wants to be out here.
In any other director's hands, this might have been a recipe for tedium. But Ceylan, who is also an accomplished photographer, understands that texture and light matter. He weaves a sensuous, dreamlike web over the proceedings: Blinding spots of light pierce the impossibly black night air; giant stone faces are revealed by brief flashes of lightning; characters wander into the dark and seem almost able to touch long-forgotten memories. We seem to be in a world where the living and the dead coexist. All this is made hauntingly explicit when the team briefly stops in a nearby village where, as a local official informs them, all the young people have left, and the main order of business is getting a new morgue and a place to prepare bodies for burial.
But Ceylan refuses to end his film in this sweet, uncertain night. In fact, the final section of Anatolia takes place in almost blindingly harsh daylight, as the characters, having finally found the body, face mundane reality back at home the following morning. The doctor performs his autopsy, while the suspect, who has some secrets of his own, has to face the judgment of those closest to him. Now the director lets his previously immaculate compositions get crowded by figures intruding into the frame, and even some handheld camerawork; having drawn us into a dream world, he feels obligated to pull us back out. We are now in a concrete, unbearable land of consequence and judgment.
It is in these scenes that the mesmerizing, mysterious Anatolia begins to gain a new kind of power. It becomes a film about how the realm of memory, dreams, regret and death never really leaves us, how it's always hovering somewhere nearby, in a constant, unseen dialectic with the cold edges of the visible world. Ceylan will certainly continue to seek new stylistic paths, but for now, he has given us a staggering masterpiece.