Darkness enshrouds the landscape in much of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's (Climates, Distant) latest work, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia; the best film I've seen from this year's crop at the Portland International Film Festival. Whereas some films at the fest have seemed wafer thin (The Silver Cliff being a prime example), Ceylan's is a substantial feast; a visually stunning, 2 1/2 hour-long flick that navigates its extended running time without losing the interest of viewers or relying on cheap spectacle to keep 'em in their seats. The balance is all in the story and characters, both of which are, like the land traversed, hidden from full view at first.
At the beginning of this tale, all we know is that a caravan of cars are driving at night. They carry a group that includes a police commissar (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his men, a prosecuting attorney (Taner Birsel), a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and some suspects. One of the suspects, Kenan (Firat Tanis), is leading them to where a body has been buried. The only problem is that Kenan had been drinking heavily when the suspects disposed of their victim, so he's having a difficult time remembering the exact spot. Frustration sets in; an emotion that is transferred to the viewer, given the immersive quality lent to the film by its languid pacing and, eventually, the men begin to tell each other stories.
Ceylan pulls off a clever narrative bait-and-switch here: we expect the film to be about the search. But as the characters divulge their secrets one by one, it becomes clear that the film isn't in any hurry to resolve that quest. So we're left with what the men have to say to each other and the golden-hued spaces in which they speak their truths; a far more fascinating prospect than I could describe here without spoiling the content of those conversations.
I've enjoyed other films by Ceylan, especially Climates, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia feels to me like the moment in which a good director has transformed into a great one. This belongs on every cinéaste's queue. Don't wait for video; the film deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will screen for the public at Cinema 21 on Feb. 19th at 7:30pm and Feb. 24th at 3pm.