Once Upon a Time in Anatolia reaches its zenith in an extraordinary sequence that occurs roughly halfway through the film. A group of men – policemen, a doctor, a prosecutor, a murderer and various other interested parties – have spent the night driving around the mountainous terrain of the Anatolian steppes, searching for the body of the man that Kenan (Firat Tanis) has confessed to killing. Kenan's memory of where exactly this body is hidden is rather hazy, though – the murder having been committed after a drunken brawl – and the search thus far has been fruitless despite the many hours spent driving to one barren location after another. The group rests at the home of a provincial mayor, eating and drinking and hearing the mayor's complaints over the problems faced by his village, and then the mayor calls his daughter to serve the weary travellers some tea.
She appears as if she has just dropped in from another world, or the heavens above, with the single lamp that illuminates her giving the young woman an angelic appearance. The men are transfixed, mirroring the audience's entrancement as they watch her in silence, and her presence seems to stir something deep within their souls, encouraging one of them to unburden himself of a deep secret he has held close to his heart.
The title of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggests that the film is some kind of fairytale, and scenes such as the one described above feel akin to that description. Primarily, I guess you'd describe the movie as a police procedural, but it is unlike any you've ever seen, with the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan imposing a languid pace and rhythm on the film that makes it unfold like a dream, and without the usual sense of urgency that such investigative films possess. We get a tangible sense of time passing as the men drive through the darkness scanning the horizon for the indentifying marks Kenan recalls (he knows the body was buried near "a round tree"), but Ceylan seems in no hurry to resolve the mystery that drives the characters' actions. He is far more interested in exploring the nature of the men themselves.
This is Ceylan's sixth film and each film has expanded upon the picture that went before it. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is his most ambitious film and his most challenging in some ways; it asks that the audience re-adjust their expectations of narrative storytelling and be attentive, engaged viewers in order to reap the rewards that are buried within. The rewards are there, no doubt about that, but for much of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the pleasure I received from it was an aesthetic one. With his background in photography, there's little surprise that Ceylan's films are always visually resplendent, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ravishing. The opening hour is mostly lit by the headlights of cars, guiding the men through the all-encompassing darkness, and every single shot is gorgeously composed by the director. His long, measured takes allow us to examine the frame and drink in the mesmerising images. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia may sound like a long, slow slog in which pretty pictures are paramount, but Ceylan's screenplay is full of telling observations and character details, and an appealingly droll sense of humour.
The opening half of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia gets just about everything right. Sadly, this is a film of two halves, and after the body has finally been recovered (an odd, funny scene) and returned to town for the autopsy, the film undeniably loses something in the shift from night to day. The characters, like the film, seem haunted by the events that have transpired the night before. The film focuses on the character of the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) as he oversees the autopsy and considers perpetrating a lie for the sake of a man whom he has by now come to know something about. The second half of the film is immaculately directed by Ceylan but it's hard to avoid a sense of deflation at the end of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as a picture that has neared perfection for much of its opening half eventually just settles for being an extremely good film rather than a great one. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a masterclass in filmmaking, but that in itself isn't quite enough to make it a masterpiece.