Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Something to do with death -- "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"
AFI FILM FEST REVIEW
Its title isn't just a fairy tale construct; "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" derives its namesake from the films of Sergio Leone ("Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America") (not Robert Rodriguez), whose later works gradually became more and more fascinated with the operations of myth-making as it relates to the construction of a national identity and national perception, always making these arguments in a particularly generic context. Conveniently, that's where I also derive the title of my blog.
Now, don't let this preface mislead you: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film is nothing like Leone. His wandering journey through the Turkish countryside is a painfully extracted drama. Over two and a half hours, his images are both fly-on-the-wall observational and strikingly poetic in their lighting and camera position, building to no sense of climax or even resolution. What starts as hypnotic ends in a confounding sense of imprisonment. In fact, I'm genuinely puzzled by "Anatolia," even if I think that Ceylan made every inch of this film exactly as intended. Its formal accomplishments are incredibly laudatory. Deciphering meaning isn't just difficult -- it's damn near impossible.
A band of cops and other officials lead two prisoners through the Turkish countryside in search of a body they have confessed to killing and burying. They start off at dusk, and over the night wind down a road, stopping ever so often as the killers can't seem to remember where the body is stashed. Along the way, the various characters discuss their lives, their sorrows, murder, death, and miracles. This is only the first half though, and after the body is discovered the film charts the return back to town and the processing of the corpse, while this mini-dramas between the characters continue to play out.
Right off the bat, the rather amazing landscape cinematography orients how we watch this film. Characters are often miniscule, as the camera photographs rather idyllic compositions of the sprawling hills and dusty roads. The sound gives us the impression we are right next to the characters, even when the camera leaves them to float freely through a field of tall grass. In one shot, an apple rolls down a hill, into a creek, and slowly tumbles through the water for what must be a good two minutes. The camera never cuts, and the characters continue talking over the image.
This disjunction between the narrative action (the conversation) and the treatment of images as somewhat apart from that give a rich sense of beauty to the opening act of "Anatolia." As it goes on, the conversations become more focused on the dead body they hunt, and of death itself. For each of these characters, death (and life) seems to have very particular meaning, much as their quest is, for some, a nuisance, and for others, a matter of utmost importance.
The discovery of the body (this isn't really a spoiler even though it comes about 105 minutes into the film; it's rather obvious this will happen) redirects the narrative into a somewhat more comic and yet more disturbing element. The prosecutor must process the body, and the language of his report is ever so slightly different from what we watch happen, giving us the impression that the stories we report are always divorced from the reality we experience them in.
Even police reports are constructs in this world that deals increasingly with the limits of construction, especially as it relates to death. While the retrieval of the body is the only narrative arc, and it ultimately lands in the morgue, there is still no real sense of closure for anyone in the film, especially the characters we come to learn a bit of backstory about. Maybe our jobs fill our existence, give us our stories? Maybe stories have conclusions, where reality doesn't? Maybe we can INVENT conclusions for our stories that elide the devastating aspects of life?
While I think these and many others could ultimately be the roots of the film, this last question seems to be the most apt way to start thinking about it. Stories smooth over harsher details, and the film works to unearth (quite literally, as they must exhume a dead body) what some of those details are. Even if we never learn why the man was murdered or get much of an insight into those who killed him, there is a quietly disturbing quality that seems to suggest the men in this film are consciously evading a confrontation with their reality.
Ceylan leaves this up to us to decide for ourselves, as there is little dialogue in the last 45 minutes, and the final sounds (as the image cuts to black as certain sounds continue) suggest the knowing eradication of evidence that contradicts a published account. Ceylan wants us to consider the ways we "create" our relation to the world. That he situates it in such a well-defined and gorgeous space is a credit to how particular and universal he is able to make this film once one sits back and starts peeling away the layers.
Its demandingly slow pace may infuriate some, but it also serves as the backbone for exposing the rigors of its procedural. In some respects, it's like a fine wine: it needs this space to breathe, for it's in the spaces that's between what's said and what's not ready apparent in the compositions that meaning starts to take shape.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" deserves far more unpacking than I'm able to give it, but it's a perfect example of a cinema that demands active involvement to derive meaning. I'm not even sure if that meaning goes as deep as I suspect it does, but I know I'll be thinking about it for days and weeks to come.