30 May - 5 June 2014 #709

Once upon a time in Anatolia

Sunir Pandey

Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is in the news after his new film Winter Sleep won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. We don’t know when his latest picture will be out on DVD and hit the Nepali market in Khasa Bajar, so we must instead make do by watching his last release Once upon a time in Anatolia, which was also a masterpiece.

A senseless murder sparks off a police procedure in a nondescript town in the steppes of central Turkey. Gathered in the search party are the local bigwigs: a police prosecutor, a post mortem doctor, the police (all main subjects of the film), and a gang of subordinates who do the donkey work. The men gather, a hierarchy is set and off they go into the night in search of an elusive dead body.

But what was supposed to be over in no time turns tricky because the main suspect himself is unsure where they buried the corpse. It was night, he was drunk, and before long the search party also drifts away from discussing the subtleties of the murder because they’ve seen hundreds of similar cases. The film then shifts from a who/why-dunnit to the personal lives of these small-town men who go about their work lives as if the routine of habit demanded no questions.

Ceylan, who grew up in a similar town, also doesn’t want to solve the murder. For him it is his characters’ personal experiences that make them trivialise the most important things in the world – life and death – that deserves exploration.

It gets revealed all these officers have (had) terrible romantic lives and the film keeps coming back  to their stories: a gorgeous woman who predicted her death, a failed childless marriage, a sick son and a domineering missus. Even the murderer says he had an affair with the dead man’s wife and the son was his. When the lads gather and bring out the banter, tales of disappointment and infidelity abound.

The lack of women in speaking in the film is overwhelming but not surprising because Ceylan wants to suggest they lie on the periphery of life in rural Turkey. When they are spoken of, women are an afterthought in the lives of our protagonists. So when a local mayor’s gorgeous daughter quietly serves them tea during a stopover for food, these ugly, ageing, mediocre men see where exactly they went wrong.

As for the murder case, the body is found, the suspect is taken to court, reports are duly written, and the autopsy at the end reveals something even more jarring. But by now it is too late to turn back because we realise the discrepancies in the lives of our heroes elicit equal shame as the murder itself.

For a film that begins with the audience looking in through a window and ends making us look out through another, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia refuses to answer the who’s and why’s, and leaves you more fascinated by the introspection.

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Cannes 2014