The movie “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” is a slow-burning, introspective exploration of the human condition, masterfully directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The film follows a group of men on a fruitless search for a dead body in the Turkish countryside. The story is told through their conversations and interactions, which slowly reveal their inner selves
A Metaphorical Journey in Darkness
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s filmography reached a turning point with “Üç Maymun” (Three Monkeys) in 2008, and his subsequent film “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” was highly talked about. In a sense, Ceylan had stepped out of his own world’s darkness and began to explore the darkness of “other worlds.” In “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” he shows the courage to look at a social darkness without ignoring his own darkness, all the while attempting to illuminate the darkness with car headlights in vain.
Throughout the film, a journey from one fountain to another on the pitch-dark roads of the Anatolian plain all night long becomes increasingly metaphorical as the film gradually reveals its intention. The police, gendarmes, prosecutors, doctors, murder suspects, and three cars full of “people from our hometown” roam the winding roads with their headlights blazing, searching for a buried body by the fountain. The corpse is the MacGuffin of the film. As we stop at the fountains along this journey that the film leads us on, even if we point the headlights of the cars in that direction along with our gaze, we can never see anything there. What we see is hidden in the conversations inside the cars, the insults, the strange jokes, and the relationships people have with each other. Occasionally, a ghostly figure emerges in the light of a gas lamp in the middle of a tea tray held by a woman like an houri or in a face reflected in a mirror lit up by a flashing lightning bolt.
The night-long journey does not yield any results, and our characters decide to spend the night as guests at the table of a village headman. The body that everyone is after naturally surfaces from the earth/daylight at the last fountain they go to. But the film doesn’t end there because there are other secrets to be unraveled and other darknesses to be illuminated.
Dynamics of Power and Hierarchy
In the movie “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the real tension doesn’t come from the story of the killer Kenan and the hidden victim trapped in the police car, but from the dynamics surrounding Kenan. The murder has already become old news for those living in the area and will likely only make it to the third page of the newspapers. What truly captures the film’s focus are the hidden aspects, which are not even newsworthy, such as the power hierarchy and the struggle for dominance that pervades daily life. We see the first signs of this in the conversation about buffalo yogurt that takes place inside the police car at the beginning of the film. Regardless of the topic’s mundane or absurd nature, the hierarchy of power always determines how people speak to each other. Those in higher positions have the right to speak, and the best buffalo yogurt expert is naturally the one in power. The practices of power, which permeate every individual, also determine people’s daily behavior. Everyone is competing in their own league. While the drivers argue about which is the nearest village to go to, the officers working under Commissioner Naci and the murder suspect are subservient, and the prosecutor has control over everyone. Since there is no real power arena to fight for, the power game played out in every found area is naturally determined by personal interests. The police need a doctor’s prescription, the headman has a “graveyard tender” situation, the autopsy technician needs new equipment, and both of them are looking to the prosecutor for help.
Then there are those who are almost completely silent, those who do not speak up. The murder suspects Kenan and Ramazan, the victim’s wife Gülnaz and her son Adem, and even the victim Yaşar, are all at the lowest rungs of society, without any position or power.
And then there’s Dr. Cemal, who seems to be staying away from everything.
The Enigmatic Character of Dr. Cemal
The character of Dr. Cemal is particularly interesting, as he is an outsider to the group, and seems to keep to himself. However, as the night wears on, the camera slowly zooms in on him, revealing that he too has something to hide. The doctor’s silence is broken by a mundane conversation about the deaths the prosecutor has seen in his life, which inadvertently leads to the prosecutor revealing that he is actually the killer of his own wife. This confrontation ends the power struggle between the doctor and the prosecutor, as the doctor has opened a door for the prosecutor to confront his own guilt.
The autopsy scene at the end of the film is particularly significant in terms of Dr. Cemal’s character development. As a city dweller, he initially appears to be detached from the events around him, but he too becomes a part of the bloody game being played. Through his interactions with the victim’s wife and child, the doctor sheds his aloofness and becomes involved in the search for the truth.
It is worth noting that one of the film’s screenwriters and actors, Ercan Kesal, is also a doctor, and that the film is based on his experiences working in remote areas of Anatolia. The film’s title, with its reference to Sergio Leone, implies the presence of a hidden narrator, which is revealed to be a composite of Dr. Cemal, Chekhov, Ercan Kesal, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Ebru Ceylan. The final shot of the doctor’s face covered in blood suggests that even the narrators are not detached from the events they are describing.
Beyond Human Relationships: A Broader Perspective
In “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, beyond the decay that we witness in human relationships as spectators, what else exists besides what is left unlit by the car headlights? The film inserts fragments of “truth” that we can never fully grasp, as if we are only able to catch glimpses of it amidst the local dark humor. These momentary revelations occur in the flash of lightning that illuminates a face, the girl who appears like a fairy in the mayor’s house, or the gas lamp that reveals the victim’s ghost. The film follows a journey supposedly in pursuit of knowledge, specifically the knowledge of death, but what is unseen is what gets trapped in the power of that knowledge. The doctor is perhaps the only character who shows the courage to look at himself in the mirror and towards the camera, therefore getting closest to the knowledge of his own being. Even he has a certain apparition that he sees in the middle of the night in the steppe, but he eventually abandons the darkness by the end of the film.
The scene where Arap Ali shakes an apple tree and scatters its fruits is one of the most important scenes in the film. The apple, which we inevitably see as the fruit of knowledge, is in this film a fruit that drifts away from the characters and ends up rotting on a rock, lost in the murky, shallow waters. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” tells the story of how characters pursuing a certain kind of knowledge, as they travel through their own steppes, become further and further removed from the truth. The scent of the yogurt made from the buffalo milk, the smell of lamb meat, or the stench of bodies left in the summer heat until their relatives arrive from abroad are all present, but what lingers most is the decay that permeates the film.
At the beginning of the film, we could only peek through a dirty window to catch a glimpse of a scene that could potentially help shed light on the murder. Similarly, at the end of the film, we are left looking through a closed window, watching the victim’s distant wife and child and their uncertain future, just like the doctor. We have a bloodstain on our faces, and we are all looking at something unknown through a closed window. The children are playing with a ball in the schoolyard, and the fatherless boy throws the ball back into the yard and walks away with his mother.
Last modified: May 11, 2023