There are no short-cuts in this long and exhaustively winding crime drama from one of Turkey’s most prominent directors. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia won last year’s Grand Prix in Cannes, despite half of the audience nodding off during its protracted running-time (a hefty 2-hour and a half). It’s a crime procedural movie set above the Anatolian steepes, where a suspect and his entourage of police force set on a wild goose chase to exhume a corpse buried somewhere around the barren landscape. The chase is not exactly ‘wild’, the ensuing nocturnal investigation is particularly long and draining, and when they do manage to locate the body, more questions are raised than answers revealed. In other words, it’s the perfect cinematic sleeping pill.
But if you’re like me, an allegedly self-styled film critic who tries not to fall asleep watching a movie no matter how fucking boring it is (and more-than-often obsessively tries to find meaning in everything), Anatolia is haunting in its elemental, Tarkovskian portrait of moral rot. Director Ceylan paints on a painterly canvas a bleak provincial fable of a moral compass gone wrong, where it isn’t so much about the crime itself than the character foibles that unfold over the course of the post-mortem investigation. Yes, there’s a literal corpse buried somewhere, but there also figurative corpses already slowly rotting within the characters’ psyches – a prosecutor suffers a private grief, a commissioner is tormented by ennui, a world-weary doctor serves as a witness to the entire proceedings and a suspect awakens to a brief, beautiful reprieve amidst the otherwise ugly situation. Ceylan barely pulls focus into these strangers in the night, distancing his camera to wide-angles, capturing this Turkish province in broad strokes. Morality here is as barren as the steppes, and it’s the people here who tries to do good suffers the pain perpetrated by some petty crime – a thesis only realised if you haven’t dosed off right until the credits.
It’s bleak, languid and excruciatingly slow, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will reward those who are patient and tried to stay awake throughout the entire running-time of what seems to be cinema’s Longest Night of Crime Investigation. Ceylan transforms a mere police procedural film into an existential road movie that haunts, baffles and enlightens simultaneously.