Once Upon a Time in Anatolia/Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da is not the crime movie it first appears. It is in fact two movies, the longer countryside first part funneling into the later town happenings through two characters and, among the two, Prosecutor “Clark” (Gable) Nusret’s (Taner Birsel) guarded divulgence of truth behind his earlier interest in a transparent “friend’s” wife’s predicting, willing or causing her own death.
Director-cowriter Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish selection in the New York Film Festival may have trouble here, where a hundred-fifty-seven minutes of subtitles could deter many and those who brave it may not care for a small-talky feature as serpentine as bare winding roads in Anatolia. Deliberateness and length caused viewers to lose sight of seemingly throwaway minutes at the start when three men share a meal and laughs, two of whom will live while the third occasions the long night’s search for his remains beside a fountain and round tree.
Those impatient many will miss an unhurried rumination on men’s lives and loves and, though they appear but briefly, on women’s. Much is darkness, lighted up by headlights in the immensity or lanterns in a village which loses electricity but needs, instead, funds for its cemetery. Two cars and a jeep carry local cops, officials, diggers, soldiers and two prisoners through rolling landscape. Focus is not on scenery, nor on solving a crime per se, even though not until well into the story do we know what they are looking for and why. What matters is the searchers, not the search.
Through their chitchat and professional assessments, these men reveal themselves (and their relationships with unseen women). In front is police chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), an uneasy ex-smoker who advises driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan), loses patience and buffets suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis), and asks Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) for the pills for his son that his wife’s phone call has reminded him of.
Cuffed Kenan directs the convoy to one isolated fountain after another, none of which is the correct one because he had been drunk when first there. He can smoke only on earning it by cooperating and is not allowed the cigarette offered by the doctor, who observes and, divorced, works in a town hospital rather than in a city which his youth and skills would merit.
The prisoner’s cola-drinking younger brother is the other suspect, chubby and slow. The second official is the well-dressed prosecutor, a widower and father who keeps his own counsel but is drawn to talking shop and speculation with the doctor, the only other cultured person around.
A stop at a hamlet gives them food, rest and a respite for conversation that scratches the surface, an earful of its mayor’s (Ercan Kesal) laments and a vision of his “angel” daughter wasted and doomed in the boonies. Before they depart, in a shed where the camera does not follow, Kenan is convinced to promise more resolute cooperation and rewarded with a smoke.
In the morning they find what they have sought, not at this point a surprise, in any case not central to where the film is going, and surprisingly accompanied by humor. That accomplished, they return to the county seat for the drawn-out coda that reveals a motive for the ostensible exciting force. Their part done, the law and its culprits fade out to leave the higher professionals to their work. Doctor and prosecutor meet to satisfy state requirements, though there is macabre humor here, too. Even in an unspoken admission about the “friend’s” tragedy, there is gentle, shared truth about men and about women and about revenge between them.
Life is the mystery that goes on regardless of regrets, sorrows, joys. So Doctor Cemal watches from a morgue window as recent widow Gülnaz Toprak walks away with her husband Yasar’s clothes in a bag, while, anger forgotten, her son retrieves an errant soccer ball to kick back into a schoolyard. Ceylan’s vision is a humanistic acceptance of existence, flawed but what we have.
(Released by Cinema Guild; not rated by MPAA.)