*** Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (2011)
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 critical darling Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a euphoric cinema experience for about 90 minutes. It’s the story of a group of grizzled cops, a doctor, a state prosecuter and two suspects driving around at night in the Turkish countryside searching for the burial site of a murder victim. The characters are all well drawn, realistic and interesting with Muhammet Uzuner as the doctor, Yilmaz Erdogan as the chief of the local police and Taner Birsel as the Ankara-based prosecuter all delivering standout performances. The banter between this rogue band of diverse characters is frequently funny and totally believable.
As the night wears on, it becomes apparent that main suspect doesn’t know where they dumped their victim and tempers begin to flare. The group is tired and after a half dozen possible locations prove fruitless, the small convoy decides to stop at a local village to rest and eat at the local mayor’s house. Ceylan uses the ensemble cast to draw us into the fabric of local Turkish life and it’s almost revelatory. His attention to detail and revealing character insights creates the illusion that you are right there amongst the searchers and it’s quite a thing.
The nighttime cinematography is simply stunning with the minimalist lighting provided by just three sets of car headlights and a luminescent night sky. It’s not something that I normally pick out, but the film’s soundscape is absolutely masterful as well and it reminded me of the way Tarkovsky used audio in his films. Sounds are layered into the scenes in ways that serve to further immerse you in the proceedings and it’s hard to accurately describe just how effective this is.
As morning arrives and our band of searchers come to the end of their journey, I thought to myself that what I’d just witnessed came as close to cinematic perfection as it possibly could. I felt like I’d also spent the night searching the Turkish countryside for this elusive and macabre half-buried treasure with a bunch of deeply likeable characters and it was time to go home….
….except it wasn’t. At 96 minutes, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a burgeoning modern masterpiece, but the problem is this – it’s not 96 minutes long, but rather 158. An unnecessary final act takes us through the next morning and by this point the film has unfortunately lost all of its meticulously-constructed momentum and energy. The character’s further revelations could easily have been addressed earlier in the film and the entire production takes on the feel of a visiting relative who you quite like, but begin to detest because they just won’t go home. It’s entirely possible that my North American “look, a kittie” attention span just doesn’t suit the material here, but I found the final hour of Anatolia interminable. Shifting gears part way through a film is tricky business and I don’t think it worked here. It’s tempting to suggest watching this film over two evenings and treating the final act as a separate film.
All of this is a real shame because it reduces the sheer majesty of what came earlier. If you have the patience however, part of this film is just about as good as it gets. As an aside, in 1937 Frank Capra filmed Lost Horizon and the original cut ran about over 6 hours. The film was first edited down to 3 ½ hours, but test audiences hated it and many walked out. Studio chief Harry Cohn intervened and whittled the film down to 132 minutes and it was finally released at 118 minutes.
Lost Horizon went on to capture several Oscars that year, one of which was for Best Film Editing.