Thursday, October 13, 2011

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA                     B-                   
Turkey  Bosnia  Herzegovina  (150 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Nuri Bilge Ceylon

Anatolia is the rest of Turkey other than Istanbul, so this is basically a police procedural taking place in the backwoods rural regions of Turkey, reminiscent of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) or Bong Joon-ho’s MEMORIES OF A MURDER (2003), where the local cops and their country bumpkin methods are at odds with the latest scientific police procedures, as represented by a doctor from the city, who digs a little deeper in determining the causes of death.  The result is a cultural clash, often comical, but once again an examination of a male dominated society which has a notoriously low regard for women.  Shot in ‘Scope and on HD film, it opens with what is immediately recognizable as a Kiarostami shot, a long static take of a distant horizon of rolling hills in the dark, where after awhile car headlights can be seen from 3 cars moving in the camera’s direction, a police team eventually stopping nearby where two alleged killers are attempting to locate where they buried the body, where many of the distinguishing landmarks of the hilly region are similar.  Much of this feels like a wild goose chase, made even more difficult by a search in the dead of night, led by an outraged Police Chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) dragging the handcuffed lead suspect Kenan (Firsat Tanis), with Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) and Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) tagging along as part of the team, all awkwardly bumping into one another throughout the night, where slowly the audience develops a feel for the characters.  Most of the time the group just stands around smoking or chatting in small groups as the perpetrators are led through various locations, trying to ascertain clues that are more recognizable, trying to pinpoint an exact spot, as the suspects are vague in their recollections, which makes one wonder why they assembled such a large team when they didn’t even know where they were going.  The endless search builds to a slow monotony, broken only by moments of absurd humor.  

There is a running dialogue between the Prosecutor and the Doctor, a battle of modernist moral wills that plays out like existentialist banter, as each approaches their work quite differently, though both believe they utilize rational methods.  Being from the region, the Prosecutor seems more willing to accept without question many of the local habits and customs, where his understanding of the lay of the land helps him identify motives for criminal acts, as he believes he understands how people react when things go wrong, believing he is an excellent student of human behavior.  The Doctor on the other hand discounts much of the local lore while balancing the personal side of a physician’s treatment of a patient with the professional side of determining the forensics evidence in criminal cases, believing science explains itself rather than simply accepting the word of alleged criminals.  This gets into a Dostoevskian Crime and Punishment exposé where the Prosecutor sees no reason to doubt the word, once motive has been established, and finds the Doctor extremely cynical not to accept what amounts to rational explanations for human behavior.  All of this sounds like back and forth theoretical legalese, and to a large degree it is, not particularly involving with any of the characters, where instead the information revealed is used to update and advance the state of the case, where some of the particulars have an eerily incestuous feel to them, where family spats have spilled over into generational blood feuds, where few in the region are educated enough to change the continuing cycles of violence that are inflicted on each other. 

The most interesting aspect is the entire group takes shelter in a local village due to a coming storm, where the local mayor greets them and has his family serve food, where he updates everyone on the latest developments within his own family, proud of his two sons and their budding professional careers, also a daughter who has married into a good family, calling his remaining daughter still living at home an “afterthought.”  When she serves the tea, however, in the middle of a power outage, her angelic face is illuminated by candlelight, where each man is taken aback by her breathtaking beauty, including the suspects, where it seems such a waste for someone that beautiful to end up in such a distant, God forsaken place, where there is little hope her life will ever amount to anything.  But these thoughts and ruminations reflect the continuing frustrations this group faces throughout the night.  By daylight, however, they discover the body and the particulars of the crime are revealed.  Much of the local flavor is lost in the professional vernacular of documenting the case, a slow and meticulous process that is mostly read out loud which simply elongates the film well beyond the director’s ability to sustain the audience’s interest.  There are ambiguous tidbits added to the case, throwing doubt into whether or not they’ve actually captured the real murderer, or whether any of this will have any impact in the lives of the local citizens whose hopes disappear at such an early age.

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