In the slow-paced, detail-obsessive, character-rich, Oscar-contender from Turkey at the Santa Fe Film Festival, the story snakes around the characters like the creek through the hills and slopes, occasionally seen, sometimes only heard, but always a part of the landscape.
Released at the New York Film Festival earlier this month, “”Once Upon A Time in Anatolia” is in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Based on a doctor’s recollection of a murder investigation, the film plays out in real-time with long, incremental zooms and often no cutaways during a scene.
On the surface, the film focuses on a band of men looking for a body. You have the chief police inspector, the prosecutor ready to detail the findings, two prisoners, a doctor, drivers of the three vehicles and various sundry characters, diggers, army, etc. In descriptions of the film, it has been noted that the story is based on the doctor’s recollections of a night spent looking for a body. But underneath, I think director Nuri Bilge Ceylan may have crafted more of a story than what is on the surface.
If you haven’t seen this film yet, you may want to stop reading right now, or plan to do a brain wipe before you go because this isn’t a film to be missed and there is a reason you’ll want to see it on the big screen.
About a quarter of the way into the film, there is a scene between the doctor and the driver, Arab, in which the sound of the wind and the approaching storm, the silhouettes of the men and their talk create a dream-like space in the film. At this point, I began to see how each thing that happens is from the doctor’s POV: an apple falling from a tree and rolling down the hill through the creek; a black cat running from the wind and crouching under a dumpster; the widow of the murdered man and her son dutifully acknowledging their fate.
This POV is so intense, in fact, that I began to think the doctor had something to do with the murder. He acts so guilty! The prosecutor makes him feel guilty, the scenes of steam bath and interrogation, long looks from the criminal paint the doctor’s silence as a secretive one. And the final autopsy scene where the doctor deliberately covers up the technician’s finding had me saying, “Aha! I knew he was part of it all along!”
To be fair, no one I spoke with after the film agreed with me. The doctor was just reporting on his view of that day, they said. But, I think, if you craft a story with enough ambiguity, and edit it so that it is suspenseful, another story may emerge, one that you hadn’t intended, but one that also works if you shift your perception just a little way down the creek.
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