by Justin Senkbile
“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, the new film from Turkish photographer turned filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a thrilling film about police and procedure – as opposed to a thrilling police procedural. As if it were even possible to confuse this movie – a thick, moody study in time and texture – with the likes of “The French Connection”.
The first half, once you realize where it’s going, plays out with Sisyphean absurdity. A small caravan travels the hilly backroads at dusk. Periodically the three vehicles stop, a small group gets out, goes looking around, and eventually returns to their cars. They drive on and repeat.
They’re looking for a body, we eventually learn, but as we’re figuring that out, we’re getting to know the principal figures in the group. The first one to stand out is Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), the police officer who seems most distressed by the evening’s events, or lack thereof. He’s carting around a handcuffed man, Kenan (Firat Tanis), the apparent killer, who may or may not be leading these men on a wild goose chase as he navigates them to his victim’s grave.
As Naci and Kenan shuffle in the dark, leading one another, we also spy two other figures hanging around. Nusret (Taner Birsel), the state-appointed prosecutor in the case, commands far more respect than Naci (in fact, he’s referred to simply as Mr. Prosecutor for most of the picture), and is losing his patience with the loose-nerved cop. Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) waits quietly and patiently as well, for the role he has to play as medical examiner once the body is discovered. Rounding out the bunch are a few military guards, a couple additional cops and a pair of hired grave diggers.
It’s all a loose framework on which Cyelan drapes layer upon layer of texture and mood. Dusk eventually turns to night, and a storm slowly follows them along the countryside, though it miraculously never reaches them until their work is done. At the home of a provincial politician, as the group takes an evening break, we simply observe: the host tries to talk policy with “Mr. Prosecutor”, for example, and the prosecutor, eating voraciously, does his best to politely shrug him off.
Ceylan’s band of searchers is organized like a social cross-section, with its day-laborers hired to dig, its middle class cops and the somewhat better-off lawyer and doctor all crammed together. What arises from these similarities and differences is most certainly what makes the film so funny, but its only half of what constitutes the richness of the experience. The other half can be described much more simply: there have been several very good looking movies in recent memory, but the photography in “Anatolia” is jaw-dropping.
“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through March 1st.