Ceylan takes a granular approach to a genre that’s pretty granular to start with. Romania is a loose neighbor of Ceylan’s native Turkey, where Anatolia is set. The art-filmmaking that’s come out of Romania in the last decade has clearly made an impression on him. Ceylan is showier than the Romanians. He has a better eye and is in love with his artistry. The movie was shot digitally, but some of the compositions look like oils on canvas and others like blown-up photographs. The long, scrupulously composed scenes that unfold in a loose approximation of real time, with wry comedy, frivolous chitchat, and loaded anecdotes, strike me as a Romanian appropriation. Ceylan applies his own quiet mysticism and comfort with the alluring elusiveness of some certain mysteries.
Ceylan’s previous outstanding films — including Distant, Climates, and Three Monkeys — were small in scale, often about the Turkish soul and sometimes about him. This is a murder yarn. For the first act, the members of the caravan — a police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan); a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner); a prosecutor (Taner Birsel); two suspects; and an assortment of functionaries — comb the hills for a body buried beneath them. The search goes on for long enough that it starts to seem as if the law’s leg is being pulled. What we’re meant to notice is the sheer work involved in solving this crime, that it lasts through the stormy night and into the next morning, that it’s boring and disorienting, that not all of it is being conducted competently.
The filmmaking, of course, is another matter. That’s far beyond competent. In an early long shot of the cars making their way down the road, the headlights wind toward the foreground like a slow electrical surge. Ceylan creates and sustains an enveloping atmosphere of jocularity, beauty, and dread. There aren’t many movies whose nightscapes continue to acquire surprising nuances of physical and spiritual darkness.
An early shot features five men in one of the caravan’s cars. As three of them debate yogurt preferences, the camera pans patiently toward the silent fellow (Firat Tanis) riding the hump in the backseat. Even with the fresh scar across his face, he’s the handsomest man in the vehicle, but it’s his haunted expression that draws you to him. His name in Kenan, and he’s taking the police to the spot he thinks he and his friend dumped the body. The lovely first two shots feature the pair of suspects enjoying some food in the dead man’s garage during happier, if ominous times.
Eventually, something turns up, and the murder is somewhat ghastlier than it appears. Ceylan wrote the film along with his wife, Ebru Ceylan, and a physician and actor, Ercan Kesal. The film they’ve written is based on an actual case and envisions procedural grunt work with a richly comic sense of the blasé.
The men here are an assorted crew mildly basking in or simply stymied by their work. A wonderful one-way conversation is built around the substandard forensic tools at the coroner’s office, while the movie’s ideas gravitate toward an odd episode of lapsed ethics. Ceylan settles on the doctor as his character of interest. He’s rational, educated, and could be practicing medicine anywhere. He’s also a device that permits Kesal and the Ceylans to mix in a bit of snobbery: The doctor is a pragmatist among hotheads and buffoons.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lacks the seismic linguistic payoff of, say, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective. Nor is it as sharp and sanded down as the Romanians’ best films, which manage to prove how much daily life is inextricable from national history. I don’t know that Ceylan is thinking quite that big here, but his movie is more vividly photographed and even better mustached. It’s also eerily tragic and chillingly hard to come to terms with (we never know precisely why that man’s been murdered). Eventually, the title becomes an insinuating irony. "Once upon a time" could mean "every day."