As director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's narratives have become more diffuse and structurally ambitious over the course of his six films, so too has his thematic and aesthetic ambition expanded into new territory, a place paradoxically reverent to his inspirations and yet unique to his own creative evolution. The narrative distance between his 1997 debut, Kasaba, and this year's towering Once Upon a Time in Anatolia may initially seem rather short. After all, the former outlines its plot over the course of a single day, while the latter takes place over the course of about 12 hours. There's something altogether more audacious transpiring within Anatolia's framework, however—and not simply that it's almost an hour longer than anything else Ceylan has done to date. No, what we're witnessing here is one director's transition from modest, if expertly skilled, technician and storyteller to a filmmaker on par with the greatest of all modern artists. Anatolia is evidence of a gifted voice finding a singular tune, a promising talent meeting a newly prodigious vision head-on, and a nascent industriousness flowering into something rare and singular to behold.
What's interesting about Anatolia and its "slow cinema" contemporaries is the distinct dialogue the best of the genre engages in with regards to their predecessors. It's a movement beholden to a lineage that seemingly left little from which to expand on, and yet Anatolia stands as one of the foremost descendents of a very specific set of fundamentals. But also, most importantly, the film feels like a genuine manifestation of Ceylan's maturing sensibilities and his growing belief in the healing power of the moving image and its potential to reconcile an audience's disparate notions of something as intangible and vastly ambiguous as the human condition. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in this sense you can draw a line beginning with L'Avventura, and on through to Stalker, Abraham's Valley, The Wind Will Carry Us, and Aurora, before arriving at Anatolia. All of these—not to mention Anatolia's direct namesakes, Sergio Leone's two Once Upon a Time films—would seem to diagram an axis point from which Ceylan pivots into this virgin territory. And like those films, Anatolia is pushing narrative into a brave new dimension wherein seemingly nothing of much import occurs, and yet it's this very journey through the mundane that ultimately yields something far richer than precision storytelling could achieve.
At a base level, Anatolia is a procedural, or more specifically a policier, in the peripheral vein of a Se7en or a Zodiac. And yet the crime itself is what turns out to be peripheral. Perhaps not a McGuffin in the Hitchcockian sense, but nonetheless a device from which the story derives its momentum only to subvert its convention, the dead body that the characters spend half the film searching for and the other half transporting and examining serves simply as a springboard for these same characters to confront various fears, anxieties, and closely held secrets within themselves. This search party—comprised chiefly of a police commissioner, a doctor, a prosecutor, and the murder suspect himself—embarks at night, and as they traverse the Eastern Anatolian steppes in hopes of locating the body, engage in group and one-on-one discourse, rarely acknowledging the "plot" or anything one might traditionally associate with exposition; indeed, at various points it's difficult to discern between fantasy and reality, conversation and inner monologue. As such, this is more of an existential mystery, one less concerned with vocation or the process of discovery than with the journey itself. More directly, it's a metaphysical, cinematic analysis of bodies and their relationship within the frame and among the landscape. And yet it's interesting that Ceylan has arrived at this new plateau via a work in which arrival seems anything but certain for its characters.
The film seems composed of two distinct elements, darkness and light, and Ceylan appropriately plays with properties of both shadow and radiance and the dialectic proposed by their contrast. In short, few modern films are this beautifully composed, shot with painterly strokes by Gökhan Tiryaki and lit evocatively as to accentuate the undercurrent of dread that boils just beneath the surface of the narrative. The film's centerpiece sequence, an absolutely transcendent dinner scene that leaves the characters suspended in candle light when a power outage kills the village's electricity, plays like a fever dream, a female visage drifting amid the shadows, the deceased appearing as both apparition and guilt-bred hallucination. It's one of the few sequences that demands we study the faces of the characters rather than their anatomical association with their surroundings. Ceylan shoots much of the film in long shots and medium shots. This technique, coupled with the locales and many of the driving scenes early in the film, points to the influence of Abbas Kiarostami and his primary occupation with the passage of time and his characters' journeys though rural panoramas as soul-cleansing escape (there's even a direct visual nod to Kiarostami's aforementioned The Wind Will Carry Us, as a lone apple goes rolling down a hill before floating down stream, just as a small tree branch did in Kiarostami's earlier film). Elsewhere, Ceylan's approach mirrors that of Michelangelo Antonioni, both in an intangible air of yearning permeating his characters' grave-face demeanors and in his patient, patterned compositional sense, while the New Romanian Cinema movement provides an equally notable stylistic touchstone (both Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective, in procedural guise, and Cristi Puiu's Aurora, in languid pace and elliptical disclosure, can be read as sister films, with the latter in particular playing almost like the first act of a potential two-part murder series).
But Ceylan never leans on these characteristics as shorthand to arrive at certain revelations which he couldn't naturally develop on his accord (you may recall a scene from Ceylan's first great film, Distant, where he literally allows a scene from Stalker to play out on a television). Instead, these influences feel respectfully reconciled within Ceylan's very specific artistic milieu, and incorporated adroitly into his mise-en-scène, which at any given moment divides, circumscribes, and expands the frame as characters meditate on their own place within the greater narrative. By the time of the film's conclusion, each character will have reached quiet revelation, though their continued existences seem as transient as the corpse that's brought them together, their fates sealed as definitively as the murder suspect's. The film is bookended by shots of windows, one cloudy and barely transparent, the other clear but revealing the endless, cyclical nature of an abstract existence. It's not a particularly hopeful message, but it's one that Ceylan imbues with compassion even as our individual natures consistently push against such clearly provoked and delineated acts. As a meditation on humanity, Anatolia is a rich and rewarding experience; as an example of pure, fearless filmmaking it's something even rarer, something altogether vital.
Cinema Guild's Blu-ray of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia provides a flawless high-definition showcase for one of the most impeccably shot films in recent memory. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is utilized to great effect and with purposeful technique by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the transfer appropriately translates the intricacies of the entire frame. The nighttime sequences are impressively handled, with no noise in the dark reaches of the compositions nor any contrast issues as light travels through the frame. The daylight scenes are naturally presented, with detail both sharp and textured. This is essentially as good as a modern film can look in the high-definition medium.
Sound is offered in two strong mixes: a lossless stereo 2.0 track and a robust DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. This is almost solely a dialogue-driven film, and individual and oftentimes overlapping voices are balanced well within the mix, upfront and clear but never dominating. Despite the film's conversational demeanor, there's a vital ambiance that blankets the outdoor sequences, with crickets, wind, rain, thunder, and any number of natural phenomena lacing the outskirts of the sound field. The 5.1 track adeptly handles these intricacies as well.
Cinema Guild has gathered an impressive amount of supplemental material for this release, highlighted by a 96-minute making-of documentary which mostly features on-set footage from throughout the shoot, including interviews with many of the cast members, who reflect on Ceylan's work and their place within his growing oeuvre. There's also a 24-minute interview conducted on the beach in Cannes with Ceylan himself, who discusses the challenges of filming on location, audience expectations, his debt to Anton Chekhov, and his place within the world cinema community as he continues to mature as filmmaker. There's also an excellent video essay by Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, nearly 50 minutes of footage from the film's premiere in Cannes (where it shared the Grand Prix in 2011), and the film's theatrical trailer. Rounding out the package is a two-page leaflet insert with a brief introduction to Ceylan's work. The absence of a commentary track may be the only thing keeping the disc from perfection, but this is nonetheless a wonderfully thorough release, particularly for a debut release of a modern film.
One of the major masterpieces of the young decade thus far, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a meditation on humanity and the human body's relationship with the landscape from whence it came and to which it will inevitably pass, arrives in a pristine and supplement-stacked Blu-ray from Cinema Guild. [Slant]