In “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Distant”, “Climates”) follows a team of policemen, lawyers and doctor as they try to retrieve the body of a murder victim. Three vans full, they carry the murderers around, following the main suspect’s poor directions, searching the Anatolian fields in the failing light. The pecking order of searchers is established early.
Flanked by lowly officers the hapless perpetrator, Kenan (Firat Tanis) leads them to spot after spot in what begins to seem like a fruitless search. ” “Everywhere looks kind of the same,” offers one of the team. It becomes clear that Tanis (whose face as filled with pathos as a silent film actor) is procrastinating. The accomplice passive Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz) helped bury the body.
The team of investigators seem bored. This must be a routine in their Wild Wild East. Three vans full of men, bicker about inanities. They fill the time nattering about yoghurt. The title makes me thing this is Ceylan’s “The Searchers’ writ small.
Soon they are caravaning around in the dark. Distant shots show their headlights marking abstract designs on the empty roads. Lightening strikes illuminate threatening rock formations
Divorced Docter Cemal ( Muhammet Uzuner) and the urbane Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) the two cultured characters, bond over a story about a woman who predicted her own death. Nusret believes in the metaphysical. Cemal aks tartly, “Did they conduct an autopsy?” Commisar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), worried about his sick son, explains how to stop smoking to their driver Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) and pesters the doctor for pills. He’s short tempered and hits the perp.
Gökhan Tiryaki’s beautiful widescreen photography burnishes the uneventful absurdist journey with moments of transcendental poetry. An apple meanders down a slope into a stream where it bobs before hitting the bank. It’s a grace note.
The stop to eat. Ethnic and cultural conflicts break out over the choice of where to stop. Their Muslim host, the local mayor Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal) feeds them all and a lively conversation flows, as they eat and drink. More a group of guys than cops and a perpetrator, even the suspect is fed and hosted and a glimpse of vanishing village life, and the rules of hospitality are on display.
The canny mayor’s lovely daughter (Cansu Demirci) serves them. She’s as sweetly beautiful as a gothic madonna, a heavenly vision. Later they speculate on how he could have such a lovely daughter, going to waste in this out of the way place.
The spiritual respite leads to a haunting, as Kenan, catching sight of his victim, breaks down and weeps. Kenan relents and is finally allowed a cigarette. A motive emerges, a deadly fight when the victim discovered “his” son was fathered by Kenan.
Eventually dawn breaks, the body is found, semi-buried in a stretch of field indistinguishable from the other places they’ve looked. A punctilious
cop attempts to figure out if the stretch of open land where the body was deposited ins in their jurisdiction. They forgot to bring a body bag. The searchers are forced to curl the body up in the truck they way the murderor originally carried it.
The post mortem at the country seat has a different feel. Comic relief break out when they notice both the doctor and the victim reassemble Clark Gable. The victim’s widow (Gülnaz Toprak) and son present themselves. The victim’s son strikes at the murdere. Uneasy glances between the widow and Kenan makes us wonder.
A discovery during the autopsy, give the sympathetic docter a chance to protect the family. From his window, he watches the widow trudge off with her husband’s clothes, while the son kicks a ball back onto a soccer pick up game. While not as showy as the final close up on Bob Hoskins’s face in “The Long Good Friday”, Ceylan’s closeup on Nusret’s face reveals the answer to thoughtful viewers.