As it premiered in the UK during last year’s London Film Festival, Ceylan’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was rendered as his “most audacious film yet.” When the word “audacity” is used in relation to the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan one can be sure that his audaciousness will be evident in a complete disregard to the audiences’ expectations of the film. We are tested on many levels with Anatolia. Not only the film’s duration reaches the unexpected 2 ½ hours, its narration seems monotonous at best and the subject of the film potentially unworthy of our investment. And yet it must be said that Ceylan’s uncompromising audaciousness pays off in the end and all of the aforementioned concerns transpire that one’s pre-established conception of a film structure can be damaging to our cinematic experience to say the least. The director takes us on a journey into the wilderness of the Turkish southern parts where we experience mysticism emanating from the region’s rich cultural entanglements.
It is said that Anatolia entices mainly through its surreal dimension. Although its dreamlike quality is definitely noticeable, the film’s artistry is best to be seen through the prism of magical realism. Ceylan’s story while interweaved with a multitude of aesthetical and artistic elements is not meant to be read on purely allegorical level. The amount of detail each character brings into the story requires our attention and full investment into their lives. Through their tales – The Prosecutor’s wife’s death, the Commissioner’s family sickness or the Mayor’s concerns regarding his community, we learn the story of the region. We see the moral struggle of each character through the eyes of the Doctor who silently observes the events of the night and shares his thoughts whenever his guidance is needed. His persona is just as enigmatic as the natural beauty of the region, but just as mysterious and dangerous. He appears to be wholesome and sensible at first, but with the last few minutes of the film our certainty about the Doctor’s characteristics is turned upside down. To call him unethical would be both over-exaggeration and understatement; he fails to maintain his integrity as a fellow human being, but Ceylan uses his moral ambiguity to represent the character of Anatolia. As such the Doctor remains mysterious and complex.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia isn’t necessarily my favourite film of Ceylan, but here more than in any other of his movies, his bold stylistic approach elevates us to a completely new level of the directorial “audaciousness.” His complete disinterest in providing entertainment is both refreshing and venerable. For the first time Ceylan avoids any kind of visual trickery. Instead he composes his film by assembling long, steady shots intertwined with close-ups of characters’ faces and shots of the nature. The journey into the uninhabited parts of Anatolia is a journey back in time. We end up in the fields, with the wind gushing through the tree branches; we come across a small village where the monotonous existence needs to overcome electricity shortages and lack of resources. The film is a mosaic of the beautiful landscapes of Anatolia and the people whose lives are bound with the region’s history. Ceylan’s Turkey thrills and fascinates. And so do his films.