Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who has completely mastered the art of slow cinema. Known for his sprawling investigations of the human condition in gems like Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan has used the cinematic medium to create atmospheric magic. His 2011 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is no exception and is probably the blinding apotheosis of Ceylan’s artistic achievements.
Deceptively labelled as a crime drama, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is much more than that. On an ominous night, a police chief, a doctor, a prosecutor and a criminal set out to look for a dead body buried somewhere in the rural landscape of Turkey. They are accompanied by gravediggers and other officials as they drive along the winding roads, wishing that they were in bed instead.
Unlike most crime films that are churned out, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not a thriller by any means. Instead, it is a metaphysical deconstruction of human morality, crime and the bureaucratic obscurations of truth. Ceylan adopts a Dostoyevskian approach, choosing to fixate on the hypocrisies of the justice system while launching a powerful critique that is aimed at the voyeuristic expectations we harbour for the genre.
Through a static camera, Ceylan captures the beauty of the empty wasteland in which tiny, insignificant characters flit about as if it’s an interactive painting. The sensuous movement of leaves in the wind instantly reminds one of Tarkovsky while Ceylan himself pays tribute to Abbas Kiarostami, recreating Kiarostami’s signature shots of vehicles gliding along meandering pathways in the middle of nowhere as well as replacing the iconic scene in Close-Up where a metallic can indulgently slip down a sloped road with a fruit tiptoeing down a stony rivulet.
In an interview, Ceylan explained why slow cinema is an act of mastering the formalism of art. He maintained that the structures which govern the aesthetics of cinema are far more important than the content: “Form itself creates a kind of content. Form is not something, however, that controls the content. Form is in the centre and in some ways, for some artists, content emerges from the form. It’s certainly very important for me. Content is not content without the form.”
Due to these profoundly philosophical questions that the film raises, it becomes increasingly apparent to the audience that neither the characters nor Ceylan are particularly interested in finding the corpse. The corpse itself doesn’t matter; they have ventured into the mysterious night to find the idea of a corpse rather than the murdered victim. It is this very idea that drives them to the ends of the night, forcing them to reflect on the horror of their own existence.
There is no clear distinction between murderers and government officials in Ceylan’s vision as he quickly points out that everyone is guilty of something. The prosecutor may be familiar with all the laws in the book but it doesn’t change the fact that he drove his wife to suicide after cheating on her. Although the police chief takes no time to condemn criminals as animals, he harbours sick fantasies of abandoning his disabled child and breaking free from his responsibilities. As a result, the concept of justice becomes a search for rewarding the most vocal and powerful hypocrites.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is the answer to the age-old question: “what happens when the camera keeps rolling after a crime is solved?” As Ceylan shows us, nothing is solved at all. The formalities of report filing and medical investigations are so mundane that we start asking ourselves whether this is all there is after we die. It is so incredibly tedious that the doctor himself discards the possibility of justice in favour of convenience, choosing to ignore the glaring fact that the victim was buried alive because it would mean more paperwork.
Ceylan’s cynicism is biting and vicious, like a rabid dog tied up in the corner of the room that will never let us forget about its existence. He creates a perfect cinematic translation of Michel Foucault’s theory about the “medical gaze,” insisting that modern medicine has reduced the human body to a mere collection of functioning organs. After death, they represent nothing but amorphous lumps that are completely obsolete. To support his claim, Ceylan ends Once Upon a Time in Anatolia with the synchronous noises of children playing in the distance and the simultaneous metallic clanging of instruments as the victim is systematically disembowelled.