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Interesting but slow-paced 'police procedural', as Turkish authorities investigate small town murder
on January 27, 2013
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' first appears to be a police procedural, involving an investigation into a murder that occurred in a small town in central Turkey. A three car caravan consisting of Naci, the investigating police captain, his good-humored deputy, 'Arab', Cemal, the doctor who will eventually conduct the autopsy on the victim, Nusret, the district prosecutor, other officers, grave diggers, members of the gendamerie forces whose jurisdiction covers the rural area they're in and the two murder suspects, are all driving through the Anatolian steppes, searching for the body of the murder victim.
The director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is really more interested in examining the lives of the men involved in the investigation into the murders, than dissecting the crime itself. The first half of the film takes place at night, with wildly atmospheric shots out in the 'sticks' near the Anatolian town of Keskin. Often, characters are speaking, but they're shot from a distance or in some cases, the dialogue is completely off screen and the camera focuses on other objects in the rural landscape. Despite the neat atmospherics, the plot moves along at a lumbering pace. Director Ceylan opts to draw things out, particularly in the scenes where the police question the victims as to the location of the body.
The most interesting characters appear to be the police themselves. There are amusing, routine conversations inside the car over the merits of Buffalo Yogurt or the officers' prostate problems. Quite realistically, Naci loses his temper with the main suspect, Kenan, who can't seem to remember where the body is buried. Naci begins to beat Kenan, but the Prosecutor intervenes and reminds Naci that everyone has to be done by the book.
The brooding Dr. Cemal contrasts nicely with the optimistic 'Arab' , when they have a conversation together, as the others are searching for the body at a particular location. Echoing a theme straight out of 'Ecclesiastes', Cemal points to the ultimate meaningless of life--a hundred years from now, all of us will be forgotten and everything we are now doing in the present, will no longer be relevant. Arab humorously objects, stating, 'Doctor, you've buried us already'. He goes on that their rather mundane activities of the investigation might prove to be fodder for a child's story for their grandchildren, dubbed 'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia'.
After failing to locate the body, the group takes a break when they visit the Mayor of a local village, Mukhtar, who serves them food. Mukhtar is an interesting character, asking the Prosecutor whether he might intervene with local authorities so that the village might get some funding for municipal improvements. Suddenly there's a power failure and the Mukhtar calls for his young daughter to bring lamps, to light the room up. The group all seem to be mesmerized by the young girl's beauty as she serves them drinks, particularly Kenan, the prime suspect. Interestingly enough, the Mukhtar refers to his youngest daughter as an 'afterthought'.
After the encounter with the young girl, Kenan suddenly remembers where the body is and reveals the circumstances of the killing. It seems while drunk, he reveals to the murder victim that he is real father of the man's child. A fight ensues along with Kenan's feeble-minded brother, and the victim is killed. Because the body won't completely fit into the trunk, they're forced to hogtie him, and then drive out and bury the body. Daylight has broken, and Kenan finally leads the police to the body.
The Prosecutor also appears to be just as brooding as the grim-faced doctor. He tells a cryptic story to the doctor about a young woman who predicts her own death. It seems that the woman learns of her husband's affair with another woman during a drunken night of carousing. The woman seems to forgive the husband but then drops dead of a heart attack on the predicted date. The possibility of suicide is discussed and the doctor indicates that it could have been induced by a certain type of heart medication. The prosecutor admits that his father-in-law took the same medication and implies that the woman was actually his wife.
The film's denouement takes place back in town where the doctor conducts the autopsy on the victim at the morgue. During the autopsy, it appears that the victim was buried alive but the doctor opts to not mention this fact in his official report as he perhaps seeks to spare additional anguish for the victim's widow.
'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' starts off way too slow and ends the same way. The autopsy scene takes an incredibly long time and when everything ends, even with the revelation that the victim may have been buried alive, there's not enough dramatic twists and turns, to hold our interest.
'Anatolia' is on safe ground when it explores the ordinary lives of its common people (such as the police and the local mayor). The more upper class characters, the Doctor and the Prosecutor, are not as interesting, as they're loaded with 'angst' and are too downbeat, with all their brooding philosophizing and dark pasts. The Doctor is particularly a dull character, as we find out little about him, except for the fact that his divorce has turned him into a grim fellow indeed. The Prosecutor's story is interesting and I suppose it's a neat twist with the revelation that the woman who predicts her own death is his own wife. Nonetheless, the story is a two-edged sword, as the Prosecutor's character is defined by the downbeat story, and he becomes just as much as a brooding sad sack, as the doctor.
'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' is an interesting film worth seeing. But be prepared for the slow pace, which really diminishes its overall impact. Despite being a 'mixed bag', there's enough here to interest those film goers with multi-cultural perspectives.