I honestly tried to like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, almost to the point where I nearly strained myself trying to think of what to say in this review. I was a little late to the Anatolia party, as several fellow critics who I hold in very high regard heaped laudatory notices upon it. That says nothing of the Cannes jury from last year that awarded the film the Grand Prix alongside the Dardenne brother’s The Kid With a Bike, which can almost be watched twice in the time it takes to watch this film once.
I went in with equal parts anticipation (because honestly, who doesn’t have their opinion clouded by colleagues to some degree) and with the knowledge that Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film was often described as requiring “patience” and “analysis.” What I didn’t expect was being so thoroughly bored that I turned off the film halfway through watching it on my first pass. I thought that I had to be wrong and that there was something I was missing. I was also in an awful mood that day, so I figured my opinion was unjustly coloured by that.
Two days later and past the Friday release in local theatres, I attempted viewing the film with a clear mind. One of my favourite films last year was the four and a half hour Mysteries of Lisbon, so it couldn’t be the two and a half hour running time on Anatolia that was putting me off. There had to be something else that I was missing. Something that I wasn’t “getting.”
Now that I’ve seen it all in one go, I want all of the four hours I wasted on my two attempts at watching this film put back onto my life. I don’t care who does it or that we don’t have the technology to do it just yet, but for the life of me, I feel like I’ve just had a prank pulled on me. Kudos to Ceylan for creating a crime procedural that shows just how dull and fruitless the job can be, but absolutely nothing of consequence or interest happens in this film. This is a short film, at best, stretched to an unconscionable length. Patience doesn’t seem like a requirement. “Purposeful masochism” seems more the term academics and critics should be striving for in this case.
Various members of a local police force, a lawyer, and some soldiers spend the better part of their night carting a pair of confessed murderers around the Turkish countryside looking for the body of the victim, but the exact location of the corpse escapes them thanks to drunkenness. There’s a lot of banter that seems like it isn’t going anywhere at all shown in gorgeous long takes both inside and outside of their cramped cars. After working well through the night, the body is finally discovered and the real mystery begins shortly after bringing the body back to the coroner, but that’s not really what the film is concerned with.
Ceylan purposefully takes an incredibly indirect approach to his subject matter here, and for better or worse it’s a unique vision. The harsh looking countryside comes across almost too beautifully, often feeling like Ceylan is using his visuals as a crutch to an admittedly threadbare story that relies on banalities to pad itself out.
For those people looking for a story that has any kind of payoff, this isn’t the movie for you. I’m personally okay with that provided that the film in question at least has some sort of character development that I can get behind. This film doesn’t even have that. The characters simply plod around the countryside in a Samuel Beckett-like fashion and talk about whatever comes to mind, with a minimal amount of interrogation to remind possibly snoozing viewers that they are actually watching a crime saga. Mix this with a bunch of gorgeously staged long takes, and you have quite possibly one of the greatest looking bores of all time. In terms of pacing, I think the closest thing I could ever compare it to would be Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, but even that film ended up going somewhere.
Anything else that I say about the film would just be unnecessary padding, and I have little to no desire to stoop to Ceylan’s level. It seems like a lot of my colleagues spent a lot of time thinking about what the film really means, but having seen the film, I hardly think it’s even worth the energy. Even after having viewed it one and a half times, I can’t think of a single memorable moment in the entire film. Other more established and eloquent critics than I have tried to puzzle over this, but many of their reviews simply recite specific plot elements without really saying why any of it is worth watching. Sometimes I just don’t get my own profession.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Mysteries of Lisbon and Heaven’s Gate back to back. Or maybe I’ll watch the vastly more deserving and engrossing Dardenne film that had to unjustly share the Grand Prix on a seemingly endless loop. Hopefully in eight and a half hours vastly more productive and entertaining hours, the memories and ill feelings of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will be wiped from my memory entirely.