It’s all in the telling. If you begin a story like a fairytale, won’t that make it more interesting? The 2011 Turkish movie “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” which premiered in Cannes last year and was the co-winner of the Grand Prix unfolds like a fairytale, but don’t expect a happy ending. The movie’s title is also homage to Sergio Leone. The movie opens April 6 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.
The title refers to the 1968 spaghetti Western “Once Upon a Time in the West” that movie starred Henry Fonda as the heavy, with Charles Bronson as a mysterious harmonica-playing anti-hero. Clint Eastwood had passed on the part. The movie was longer and more somber than any of Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy which starred Eastwood. Although poorly received in its original 145-minute American wide release form, the “Once Upon a Time in the West” is now considered a classic.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan directed and co-wrote (with Ercan Kesal and Ebru Ceylan) “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” that comes in at 150 minutes. While Ceylan didn’t build a musical soundtrack with leitmotifs, natural sound does play an important role as it did in the Leone western. The scenes are long and slow and nothing much seems to happen. There is violence, but what’s important here is the dialogue.
The movie begins with three men having a meal together. One gets up to feed a large black dog. The dog barks as we go to black for the opening credits. The scene switches to a desolate landscape under a purple sky. It’s not clear if it’s dusk or dawn. In the distance, the headlights of three cars light up the barren countryside. The cars stop and men get out of the cars. “Is it here?” one man asks. They are looking for a “round tree” and one of the men is a prosecutor.
Back inside the cars as the sky darkens, four middle-aged men discuss yogurt. The fifth man in the back remains silent. His face is obscured, but the headlights of the car behind gives him a halo, drawing our attention to him. Tall, thin, with longish dark hair and a sharp hook nose, this man, Kenan (Fırat Tanış), committed a murder. His brother, the second suspect (Burhan Yıldız), rides in another car, but claims he knows nothing because he was asleep. This caravan of officials is searching the spot where Kenan buried someone, but Kenan was drunk and the countryside looks much the same, with few landmarks.
Besides the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), there is a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), the police chief (Yılmaz Erdoğan) and other officials. The men discuss each other and as the night draws on, the prosecutor tells the story of a beautiful woman who predicted her death. They stop for a meal at a small town where a beautiful girl serves them and the men seem to regard her with sadness as if the glow of her beauty is wasted in this dusty village. In many ways, this movie is about men and how women, particularly beautiful women, influence their lives. Leone’s movie also had a beautiful woman at the center.
At one point, one of the characters mentions the Leone movie, commenting that some day, this boring long night might become such a story, if told like a fairy tale, and indeed, one of the writers was a doctor who had a similar experience.
Anatolia is an older name for what is largely modern day Turkey. Director Ceylan grew up in a small town similar to the one in the movie and treats his characters with the utmost respect. He gives us the feeling of the rhythms rural life where the best and the brightest youth leave and because of with limited resources, the people who remain face some absurdities and even indignities in life and death. We learn much about these characters, mostly indirectly. Not everything is neatly explained at the end. Some viewers might find disturbing but isn’t it more like real life?
“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” is in Turkish with English subtitles.