It begins with a slow push-in through a smudgy service station window on men sitting low, conversing, eating round a small table, their voices muffled. Maybe it’s only hindsight that renders this scene conspiratorial. As it closes we hear distant thunder, which feels like a prompt for this metaphysical road movie police procedural to begin. Thunder is also a calling card of sorts for Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey’s most internationally renown contemporary filmmaker (Distant, Climates, Three Monkeys) and a guy who never met an ominous weather system he didn’t like.
A police convoy traverses the countryside of the film’s titular peninsula, the cars carrying men looking for a dead body. An entire scene plays out in extra-wide shot, the undulating dusky landscape and tiny figures in it a fine example of the film’s painterly beauty. Dryly comical small talk about yogurt and prostate trouble nearly recalls Tarantino (as does the grizzled senior cop’s ring tone: the theme from Love Story), but all the while the camera favours the ostensible killer sandwiched in the backseat, looking drowsy, an anxious, underfed animal. He can’t remember where the corpse is, claims he was drunk when he buried it. We surmise that it’s going to be a long night. Indeed, it’s going to be a long movie (157 minutes worth), but one in which something’s always happening, one that deftly lures you into its rhythms.
The officials on this search form a diverse crew of masculine types and an impressive gallery of moustaches. With his thinning hair and lanky form, the pensive doctor, Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), invokes certain figures from Tarkovsky films, most especially when we hear his thoughts as he stands before a windswept field, while the prosecutor, Nusret (Taner Birsel), is a husky, middle-aged, olive-skinned Clark Gable. Cemal and Nusret’s conversations are among Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s most captivating detours. At one point Nusret tells the story of a woman who prophesied precisely the date of her own death. He wants to know if Cemal, a man of science, can explain her morbid foresight. This topic is dropped and returned to several times, building itself along the way, constituting one of many incomplete parables in this film whose title suggests that storytelling itself is one of its themes.
When the body is finally found it almost feels incidental. Its grave is shallow. An ear pokes up from the dirt like driftwood, as though listening for something (perhaps the echo of frenzied ants from Blue Velvet, which featured an analogous dead man’s ear discovered in a field). The men huddle round the body, the prosecutor dictates a report. The body is clumsily rolled up in a carpet when they realize no one brought a body bag. This entire sequence is darkly funny and surprisingly entertaining. But once the search is wrapped and the men enter the village where the victim lived and where an autopsy will take place, things somehow become more mysterious rather than less. The accumulation of facts only compounds the enigmas surrounding the murder, raising as many philosophical questions as it does legal ones. Like the body, those questions emerge inconspicuously, in their own good time. They leave us not merely puzzled, but pierced by the feeling that so much of life is like this, existing in that broad terrain between the known and the unknown.