Sunday, January 1, 2012

Turkey's BFLF entry, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, opens

The first of the year is a notorious time for dumping bad movies on the public (by the major studios, at least). But the first film to open in New York theaters in 2010 -- a little indepen-dent, of course -- proved a comic gem of dark, sparkling humor, A Film With Me in It. Then last year, we got another good (though not great) Romanian movie to start our year, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. For 2012, however, we may finally have a great one: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, the latest film from Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan and not coincidentally, that country's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film "Oscar" race.

Up till now, TrustMovies has remained warm-to-luke regarding the work of Mr. Ceylan (pictured at left). The three films I've seen from this sometimes interesting and always visually stunning writer/
director have ranged from the style-heavy/content-light Distant to the better-balanced relationship movie Climates to the problematic and melodramatic Three Monkeys. (After seeing that last film I did wonder if this filmmaker had finally lived up -- well, down -- to his middle name). Now, with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan appears to have made a quantum leap regarding his storytelling skills while losing nothing of his consummate visual panache.

Once/Anatolia is all about a killing. Unlike, however, something on the level of AMC's recent, pretentious murder-as-entertainment-porn series The Killing, Ceylan's film takes us deep, deep into the personal and societal ramifications of this murder. At two hours and 27 minutes, we've plenty of time to ingest the unhurried pace and breathtaking cinematography, as well as to slowly come to appreciate and understand the many characters on view.

The film begins just post-sunset (see poster image at top) and the first half takes place at night. We're on some kind of investigation involving the search for a particular location, two handcuffed men, several police officers, a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner, above, right), and a chief investigator. There's small talk of yoghurt, then business talk of fields, trees and a hole dug. For buried treasure? A body? Slowly we learn, in the most non-expository, off-handed conversation, of which the below is a fine example:

Are they paying you overtime?

Don't know.  I expect so.

They will. They money's good when it's a corpse. 
Look at Tevfik. He never misses a chance:
 All that overtime, and suddenly there's a second story on his house.

In a few short, very real lines, we learn content (the corpse) and character (a little of Tevfik's, as well as that of the fellow who's speaking). The screenplay, by Ceylan, along with Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal, is full of just this kind of smart writing. Its funniest line (there are a number of darkly humours bits), given what's happening throughout Europe just now, is probably the one in which the inspector reprimands a brutal cop: Is this how we'll get into the European Union?!"

Once/Anatolia is a male movie. It's over an hour before we get even a glimpse of a woman, and she's something to behold (Cansu Demirci, above). However, as a female in the provinces, she's simply there to serve (and maybe be bartered in marriage).

As the journey and the investigation proceed, we learn more about the suspect (Firat Tanis, above), as well as about the chief investigator, well-played by Taner Birsel, whose story of a gorgeous woman who somehow knew she was going to die eventually commands enormous importance.

By the end of this quietly stark movie, its event -- the killing -- has taken on a rare weight and resonance. The film starts small and specific then slowly grows and expands to take in so much: death, family, grief, employment, the place of women, the responsibility to children, the behavior of men. 

With the addition of this film to the already released Pina and A Separation, I would say that the competition for Best Foreign Language Film is certainly heating up. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a Cinema Guild release, opens this coming Wednesday, January 4, in New York City for a two- week run at Film Forum. Click the FF link for showtimes, or here for upcoming playdates, as they appear.

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