Revelations come slowly, and lack the dramatic punch that you might expect of them, but this film flaunts the stunning beauty of the Turkish countryside, as well as some fine acting and filmmaking.
A police chief, a prosecutor, a doctor, a driver and a suspect are driving through the countryside in the middle of the night. They stop, look around, ask the suspect to identify landmarks, argue about routes and the lay of the land. It becomes clear that they are looking for a dead body. The suspect has killed him, and buried him somewhere, but he can't remember because he had been drinking, and his brother was asleep.
What you see above is among the first shots of the film; before we are introduced to any characters, we see their convoy pull over, and people get out and talk. We hear their conversation from afar, but the camera doesn't budge; the entire scene plays out in one still shot, and we are left to ponder what we've heard, its relevance unclear until later on.
You should be able to tell from this image: this movie looks beautiful. Much of its time is spent driving through the country at night; director Nuri Bilge Ceylan photographs it with such vivid colouring and careful framing, it evokes a fairtytale-like quality that matches its title.
It is an interesting blend though; the film is mostly very realistic, actions play out in real time, and trivial issues concern characters as much as grander ones. Occasionally the film breaks its strict reality to play out a surreal sequence. Two men have a conversation without moving their lips; one man sees a ghost; a woman appears like an angel to all the men... These sequences flow seamlessly from the main thrust of the film, and give a richer sense of the characters while also adding to the air of mystery that pervades most of the movie. I have no doubt that a second viewing would be very rewarding, given the context of each character in these dreamy sequences.
This is a film that rewards patience. It plays out slowly, with generous screen time devoted to moments void of dialogue; the scenery, the sounds and the atmosphere allowed to sink in. If you like action movies, or fast-paced thrillers, perhaps this one isn't for you. If you like a good drama, or crime yarn though, you may get a lot out of it. For a long time nothing happens but driving, and talking. But as the plot advances, the stage is set for some great revelations that take place in the third act.
And here is my major gripe with this film - although perhaps it was just not to my taste: these third-act revelations are groundbreaking, and cast everything that has come before in a new light. But they aren't treated as such. They are treated just like any other dialogue or setup in the film. I felt as though the movie should begin to hit its stride when the party finally reaches the town; that everything should begin to fall into place, and the great mystery that's been constructed should be revealed, and the exposure of the truth should lead to some gut-punching dramatic beats that stick with you long after watching.
Well, everything did fall into place. The truth was exposed, and each character was given enough time for a substantial exploration. The film sticks with you after watching... I guess I just didn't get that punch in the gut. The big reveals happen slowly, and it's up to the viewer to figure out exactly what they mean. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a film I'd definitely want to see a second time. I'll reiterate: this film rewards patience. And it's a very rewarding film.