FNE at Cannes IFF 2011: Competition: Once Upon A Time in Anatolia


CANNES: Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns to Cannes IFF for the fourth time with Once Upon A Time in Anatolia and looks set to take home another prize with this latest film that turns a search for a missing corpse in central Turkey into a journey of discovery of a completely different kind. His previous films Distant, Climates and Three Monkeys all screened in Cannes with Distant winning the Grand Jury Prix in 2002.

Like most of Ceylan’s films the pace is extremely slow unfolding over more than two and a half hours. The plot revolves around the search for a body that drags on throughout the night as officials from a small town drive the confessed killer, Kenan, played by Firat Tanis, around looking for the corpse he buried. Unfortunately Kenan cannot remember where he buried his victim as the roads and landscapes are all similarly monotonous. The endless drive through the night is filled with seemingly inconsequential dialogue about the mundane aspect of daily life in the small town between the characters. While the classic police story action is absent the beauty of the darkened landscapes are constantly outlined in flashes of light by the magnificent work of DoP Gokhan Tiryaki making the drive far from boring from a visual point of view.

No real action takes place until the corpse is found 90 minutes into the film. For those who think the pace is slow Ceylan said at the press conference that he found it difficult to compress the film into a mere two and a half hours as the film was based on a true story that took place over a period of 12 hours. The story was told to Ceylan by Ercan Kesal a real life doctor who lived in the tow where the real story took place and who is one of the script writers who also plays in the film.

But this is not a police murder mystery. The heart of this film is a Chekhovian look at the world of small town bureaucrats in central Turkey and the universal truths about life their dialogues reveal. Speaking at the press conference Ceylan said: My own father was a bureaucrat in a small Turkish town and I know this world well. There are a lot of small power struggles. Something is always going on. I wanted to show this way of life.”

Unlike many of Ceylan’s films the story is mostly dialogue as the characters talk endlessly and seemingly say nothing important but reveal much in their conversations. All the action is indicated but never seen with the feeling that something is taking place somewhere else just off-screen.

Yilmaz Erdogan, one of Turkey’s leading actors and directors, turns in a winning performance as Naci the chief of police. Audiences will remember him from his international hit Vizontele and its sequel. Ceylan draws impressive performances from all his cast and special mention needs to go to Taner Birsel as Nusret the prosecuter.

The pace of the action picks up slightly in the second half of the film when the body is dug up and the themes and guilt and adultery are explored obliquely and for the viewers who have been listening to the endless dialogues carefully hidden clues are revealed. But this is not really a detective story. The lives and monotony of the small town bureaucrats and the visual beauty of the dark Anatolian landscapes that are the central focus of the film are already well developed. Ceylan’s background as a stills photographer is always evident in the way all his shots are always as important as the characters in the film.

While the film moves at a very slow pace it is impossible to imagine how the impact and its beauty could have been delivered in any shorter version as every scene and every bit of dialogue fits into the whole. As with any masterpiece if any scene or dialogue in the film were to be removed the whole would be diminished.


Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Screenplay: Nuri and Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal

DoP: Gokhan Tiryaki

Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Firat Tanis, Ercan Kesal

Produced by ZEYNO FILM - www.zeynofilm.com (Turkey)

Coproduced by 2006 D.O.O. Sarajevo (Bosnie-Herzegovinia) 1000 Volt Post Production (Turkey), TRT (Turkey), Imaj (Turkey) Fida Film (Turkey) NBC Film (Tureky)

Foreign Sales: Zeyno Film