Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan had shown over the past couple of years his status as a faithful member of the "world art house cinema guild", but good as some of them were, his films had always stopped short of greatness. Not anymore: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a quasi-masterpiece on the human condition, drawing both literally and thematically from Anton Chekhov to outstanding effect.

     We'll get to the qualifier "quasi" in a moment, but for now suffice to say that Michelangelo Antonioni's blank, troubled ennui, a regular motif noticed by observers in Mr. Ceylan's previous work, has never made more sense than here. Outwardly, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a decelerated police procedural, but it serenely doubles up a moral, existentialist odyssey involving three men caught in a long dark night of the soul while searching for a buried victim in the Turkish provinces. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), the city doctor officiating in this God-forsaken corner of Anatolia where his police driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) says you should always be on the lookout, is the nominal "hero" of the piece, an outsider looking in. But he is no mere distant observer of the travails of police inspector Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan) and public prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), each of them worried and worked up in their own way with man's (or woman's) inhumanity to man while searching all night long for the corpse of Yaşar, under the guidance of the shellshocked murderer Kenan (Fırat Tanış).

     Another possible reference, other than Chekhov's melancholy ruminations that are quoted at length during the film and Antonioni's stately slow pans (also quoted at length), could be Stanley Kubrick's meticulous formalism; Mr. Ceylan's lengthy takes and exquisitely framed camera setups, heightened by Gökhan Tiryaki's sensitive, crisp cinematography, lock the film in a stunningly realized and painstakingly ordered visual world. That, in fact, is where "quasi-" comes up, the one quibble that won't let me call Once Upon a Time in Anatolia a masterpiece: Mr. Ceylan is far too aware that this is a "serious", "meaningful" film (it is), and that conscience infuses it in such a way that everything becomes almost too programmed, almost too self-important, almost too clinically designed. Everyone is asking questions about why did this happen, whether there is a god, but the stealthy perfection of the puzzle can suggest that Mr. Ceylan is the master puppeteer playing god with his little tale.

     Still, this is such an extraordinarily composed and skillfully performed chamber piece (despite the extensive location work) that it can probably be dismissed as a really minor quibble about what is undoubtedly the director's masterwork so far.

Muhammet Uzuner, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Taner Birsel; Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, Fırat Tanış, Ercan Kesal, Erol Eraslan, Uğur Arslanoğlu, Murat Kılıç, Şafak Karali, Emre Şen, Burhan Yıldız, Nihan Okutucu, Cansu Demirci, Kubilay Tunçer, Salih Ünal, Aziz Izzet Biçici, Celal Acaralp.
     Director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; screenplay, Mr. Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; cinematography, Gökhan Tiryaki (colour, widescreen); art director, Dilek Yapkuöz Ayaztuna; costumes, Meral Efe, Nildag Kılıç, Özlem Bator; editors, Bora Gökşingöl, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; producers, Mirsad Purivatra, Eda Arıkan, Ibrahim Şahin, Müge Kolat, Murat Akdilek, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Zeyno Film, Production 2006, 1000 Volt Post Production, Turkey Radio and Television Corporation, Imaj, Fida Film and NBC Film), Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2011, 157 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 12th 2012. 


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