Nuri Bilge Ceylan is an eminent film director of International cinema. His camera is eloquent, capturing the terrains of Turkey as if in a sweep of the majestic brush of a painter of the highest class. His sixth film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is also strewn with visual brilliance – is all of that necessary or the beauty is at times cosmetic? The essay finds out.
According to Louis Aragon, the history of poetry is that of its technique. This holds true for cinema as well. Looking at the history of technique one may assert that Nuri Bilge Ceylan is indubitably a new benchmark which the aspiring filmmakers would strive to reach. He has that exceptional quality of making simple things spectacular through not their exceptional, but normal qualities. Although, the ideas that bring forward emotion are not always be found in the perfect order of orthodoxy, but that never undermines his uncompromising search for beauty.
Cinema is the moving images of beauty. But often, even in the case of the most beautiful filmmakers, beauty becomes a problem as they make themselves too much occupied in making the squalor look beautiful. Then we are forced to ask, is ‘beauty’ a burden of the film or its subject? Ceylan’s sixth feature, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has brought this question to the fore.
The film is based on the true experience of one of its writers. In the opening scene we see a lighted room where three men are enjoying their drink and food. Soon we will discover that the place is nothing but a garage beside a highway. Amidst the engulfing darkness, intensified by thunder and bark, the entire structure, despite all its ‘banal dailiness’, stupefies us. The film’s next couple of hours is consecrated to observing a posse, comprising of a police chief (inseparable from his walkie-talkie), a doctor, a prosecutor and his scribe, a couple of assistants, and a murder suspect, Kenan, and his brother, whom we saw in the opening scene, wandering through the far-flung Anatolian plateau in search of a dead body.
The journey starts at the end of the day and everybody expects a quick discovery, but, to the prosecutor’s chagrin, every time the crew draws a blank when they stop at the likely-seeming spots to search. Daylight segues into evening, and as there is nothing to do during the ride, they start talking to each other, and our focus shifts from the main theme to the police chief and the others one by one. The discussion covers all sorts of things – food, ex-wife, death, suicide, hierarchy, philosophy of life, bureaucracy, etc. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason that a few men, from different backgrounds, eventually meet each other for the first time and suddenly start discussing life and death. Moreover, a couple of times, Ceylan makes light of the search proceedings and asked us to concentrate on the discussions going on between the doctor and the other gentlemen. Anyway, the crew braves the darkness and the gale and goes on with their search.
They are using the headlights of the car to look over the place as no other source of light is available there. The strong light beams silently measure the surrounding darkness and the mesmerizing sound of the cars intensifies the profundity of silence – a perfect exhibition of the dialectical factuality of beauty. In the beginning, the auteur intentionally keeps his distance from the characters by using extreme long shots to accentuate the fact that how small they are with respect to the boundless space, however, later on, the camera catches the faces close to provide us more detail about the characters .
However, the plot keeps getting diffused, if not into the array of long shots of the dreary landscape, then somehow into the long conversations among the members of the team. After a few futile efforts, the posse takes shelter at a Mayor’s residence in a small village to have their dinner. We have to wait, for quite a long time, and watch them dinning until the power goes off suddenly, and the Mayor’s beautiful daughter turns up with a lamp to serve tea, taking all of them by surprise. Conditions of life, in the middle of the desolate village, have suddenly become more hopeful, making the maker successful in producing the conflict. Her illuminated face brings an unforeseen change in Kenan’s behavior; he confesses that he is the actual father of the victim’s son. The story takes a new turn.
Finally, the next morning, the corpse is found and a solution to the problem is arrived at, but that solution leaves them high and dry. The body is disinterred, and all the legal formalities are taken care of by the prosecutor and his assistant. Ceylan’s cannily crafted compositions never allow us to feel at ease. Here, in one shot with a relatively large depth of field, a laptop, brought in to document the details of the injuries that caused the death, is kept on a stool and the body is lying in the front, while men are discussing what to do next. The intrigue of this image is the placement of these two objects – the symbol of technological triumph, the laptop, is humbled by the cruelty of death in the foreground and the vast emptiness in the background.
The troop then comes back to the town which is home to the suspect and the others. We are again arrested by the conflict born of the images of houses, shops, streets, school, and hospital, as, so far, we have only experienced the lifelessness of the murky, vast, weird, and empty landscape. No sooner the convoy arrives at the hospital than the crowd gathers to see the corpse, and for the first time, we get to see the victim’s wife and son.
Our attention is then slowly shifted towards the existential crisis of the doctor and the detailed documentation of the post-mortem process. The doctor, tired and exhausted, enters his room and turns his laptop on. The film’s action is stalled suddenly, and a series of still photographs, which carries the memories of his past and which he might have seen umpteen times before, fills the frame one by one. We can sense the director’s deliberateness to frame this eternal question – is everything ephemeral?
The final sequence unfolds in the cold light of an autopsy room where the postmortem on the victim’s body is taking place. The doctor deliberately omits the truth – that the victim has been buried alive – from the postmortem report, although we don’t know the reason behind it.
The film ends with the doctor’s point of view through the window glasses, where he sees, from a distance, that the victim’s wife and son are walking away, leaving aside a playground where some boys are playing. Where are they going? What is their future? What will happen to the murderer(s)? Being an aesthete, Ceylan will not come up with direct answers to these questions; instead, he attempts to capture the sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an ostensibly meaningless or absurd world. This shot remains the most purposefully composed one among the other orchestrated and psychologically rigorous constitutions of the film, producing the gaze that has the potential to throw the viewers’ sense of identity into confusion and challenge the very foundation of their ideology.
The end-credit carries over the sonic details of the postmortem functions, making it evident that although the central theme of this film is a murder mystery, but the greater mystery here is about the human existence itself, which, Ceylan, an artist of the highest imaginative conviction, wants to elicit.
Throughout the film one may sense that the events and actions are aforethought, and the primary aim of the narration is to justify the director’s excessive trust in the images. The fusion of close-ups and wide shots do enable us to contextualize the individual action within the wider social structures, but the means by which relations of distance and proximity are overtly insisted upon, at times, look too methodical and calculated. We have to keep on guessing – the reason behind the murder, whether Kenan really can’t recall the place where the body is buried or he is just pretending, the relationship between the victim’s son and Kenan, the role of the women, the doctor and the reason behind the exclusion of the real facts from the autopsy report – the list is too long. The gossamer threads are left for us to weave in accordance with our own historical and socio-political factuality, but, the problem is, Ceylan’s rigorously maintained system of framing and shooting, as done by the earlier European masters, sometimes makes the subtext a burden to the text.
The development of style inevitably evokes the memory of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, where the theme was also the same – death. The riveting sigh of the landscape, the spiral roads, the rolling apple and the long shots where we get to hear the voices of the men inside the vehicles from a distance – everything will often remind us of The Wind Will Carry Us, although these are two completely different films. In Kiarostami’s, the form became the content in its own subtle way, whereas, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia shows the director’s strenuous effort to find a suitable content on which the moving images would be framed to produce the beauty-truth. The visual flow of the narrative has enjambment, but it is not always coherent with the theme. By the frequent use of wide-angle, static shot, extreme long shot, flares, etc.
Ceylan has been tireless in bringing out the contours of the large Anatolian steppe. The picturesque images of the vast landscape in the low light are so striking that, gradually, it becomes a character itself, offering the metanarrative. The sense of absurdity remains dominant in the nearly perfect, and at times technically incorrect also, compositions.
In one shot, five men are shown inside a car – two policemen in the front and the other two officials along with Kenan in the back seat. The officials’ (in the front) faces are illuminated in the soft light while Kenan’s is simply an outline. The camera holds the shot for a good amount of time to take account of the playful conversations going on between the police chief and his assistant. Sometimes the doctor and the other cop are also chipping in. Then the camera zooms in slowly on Kenan; in the midst of the noise, his silent presence baffles us. The entire act merits praise, but it looks staged. This scene comes early in the film when we just have started getting familiar with the characters, and moreover, there is no chance of any significant action being taken place while traveling from one place to another. In this given circumstance, by holding the shot Ceylan has tried heart and soul to make something out of this graphically abstract composition, tenuously strung with the text, letting alone the specificity of the style.
The next one is a typical Ceylan shot where the characters, in this case, the doctor and the prosecutor, are filmed from behind, and the headlights of the vehicle illuminate the surroundings. They are chatting with each other while, a sudden gush of wind circles them. The image along with the carefully designed ambience takes us to a surreal plane where the very essence of existence seems impervious; it feels like all hope is withered away and the whirligig of time successfully brings its revenge. It is fine so far; the problem arises with the immediate next shot where we see the wind lets up all of a sudden and everything calms down unexpectedly. A continuity jump, if not a flaw, since no spatial or temporal progress takes place. The crew takes a halt at that place upon Kenan’s assertion in the hope of discovering the body, and the disgruntled police chief walks along with him and the two diggers towards the upper portion of the field. Will they be able to find the corpse? We have been denied the answer and forced to stay along with the two gentlemen, the doctor and the prosecutor, discussing the mysterious death of a woman.
In each of these instances, Ceylan’s style is operated in excess of what would seem to be the basic demand of the narration, and the manner in which we experience things asserts a relative autonomy from the trajectory of the narrative – we are not allowed to follow the search process for the sake of forming the abstract rhythm on the film’s audio-visual surface. Beauty takes shelter into mere objectivity, and thus, becomes the problem of the moving images rather than being an achievable height. In Metaphysics, Aristotle claimed, “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.” When the definiteness is heightened through intended-ness, for example, the introduction of the Mayor’s daughter or the protractive dining scene or abundance of the long takes of the landscape, beauty loses its way.
There is not an iota of doubt that Ceylan keeps pushing back the limit of what we expect from a film. However, style should not be invoked only as a useful language for talking about the ‘totality of a work of art’, as asserted by Susan Sontag, but for abstracting the larger totality of the socioeconomic heterogeneity as well.
Similarly, beauty could not be achieved only by the perfect conglomeration of virtuosic images; it should be explored also in the dialectical and historical factuality in relation to the temporality of the entire film’s duration. In a medium like cinema, where the journey is from the concrete to the abstract, there must be a certain pre-established harmony upon which the image-reality will allow our cognitive faculties to divine the truth, or beauty. It seems that, Ceylan either denies this aesthetic factuality or misses it somehow.
However, after reading this film we have to admit that Ceylan does able to help cinema to acquire a new character. It’s indeed a new approach towards the art of cinema, and Ceylan’s effort to give ‘the human life its historical importance’ is evident at every minute, which is why, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will cement its place in the history of world cinema.
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