This week: “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” directed and co-written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, currently playing at Cinema Village.
Like other foreign cop films that have recently played the festival circuit, this new Turkish production echoes a tradition of stark European policiers while reflecting how changing cultural values have altered perceptions of crime and punishment. These crime anti-dramas cast an almost obsessive gaze on the procedure and protocol of police work, presenting it in such copious and fine detail that they border the absurd. This technique is in deliberate contrast to the formula of the contemporary Hollywood police melodrama, where the process and purpose of law enforcement is the unexamined reification of the social and political status quo. How strange to see a semblance of complex reality upon the screen when we have grown accustomed to its debasement and suppression in our national cinema.
Agents of order and chaos enact their comédie humaine in the spartan hills of Anatolian night, a liminal space where blind justice bumps up against what may or might not be some semblance of cosmic order. A prosecutor describes a putrified corpse as resembling Clark Gable in the official report. A cop rages at the murderer for hogtying his victim, only to consider a similar course of action moments later to transport the body back to town, the same way it left. This kind of fateful symmetry and dramatic irony endows the film with an almost gentle gallows humor to cut the otherwise grim proceedings.
Ceylan depicts rural Turks hoping to join the EU while lamenting the flight of their youth to distant cities, and further on to Europe. The countryside is dying. The distinction between family and solitude is quickly fading, and as the two bleed into each other the request on everyone’s lips is for new morgues. Every character struggles with ghosts of memory, and the land is populated by the dead, who sometimes appear as the living.
“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” comes alive inside the ambiguous wasteland between truth and lies, the unarticulated line between possibility and actuality. Ceylan displays an acumen for the otherworldly logic of the unexplained, bearing witness to its undeniable reality. This turns the strange incongruity of everyday life in the film’s disorienting epilogue into both an eloquent indictment of modernity and a defense of its banality.