March 15, 2012; ft.com; Glowing wonder of an Anatolian epiphany; by Nigel Andrews. By Nigel Andrews
Some films shouldnt, by the laws of nature, exist. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a drama-thriller-whodunnit from prizewinning Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Uzak, Three Monkeys), ought to fall apart at the first touch or viewing. It is built entirely from paradoxes, like a machine made of incompatible parts. As a thriller it doesnt thrill (or only the deepest parts of the filmgoers soul). As a police procedural it barely proceeds. For more than two hours the murder investigation team wanders over hills and through villages, by day and night, as, with a self-confessed killers help, it seeks a buried corpse.
At Cannes, where the film won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, it was called Chekhovian. We know what that means. Nothing happens, everyone talks. Character is laid open by time and tragicomic serendipity. If youre in a hurry, dont go near this film. If youre not in a hurry, dont go anywhere else. It could change your life.
It says, shockingly, marvellously, messianically, that a living community, or family or human being, is by essence dysfunctional. If something or someone doesnt work, its in a state of grace, progress and evolution. It will attract love and empathy. If it does work, it has merely completed its job and is probably dead.
No wonder tragedy and comedy, in art, are both celebrations of failure: the best subject. Here the state prosecutor, city-trained doctor and local police chief are three Chekhovian-Gogolesque officials tussling with the mystery of a murderer who probably isnt one and a crime that definitely isnt what it seems. The first scene sets the pace and tone: a snail-paced realism haloed by the ineffable. A lighted convoy of cars moves down a dusky hill like a processional Chinese dragon. Later there is a contrasting cinematic tour de force: a long, crime-determining autopsy, using poor instruments, whose dark comedy and graphic candour become almost literally hard to bear.
Half way between at the 70-minute stage comes the AGM. The Absolute Great Moment. An epiphany strikes wonder in everyone: the characters, the audience. The mayors daughter in a village home passes into the men-crowded room, a vision of dumb-striking loveliness, lit by a flickering lamp or two during a power failure. She carries a tray of tea glasses that rattle magically, a peasant version of a Mozart glockenspiel. Outside theres a storm. Inside there has been the unpackaging of human beings that happens when people gather together, sheltered against wildness, a little drunk, sharing or intertwining the frayed ends of their soul. Then beauty comes in, plain and nature-gifted, and transcendence happens. This scene is cinema of utter, purest sorcery. But one could say that of the whole film.