My short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most gifted directors in the world; Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is his latest magnificent creation.
What seems a simple police procedural is in fact a fascinating, intricate character study and philosophical essay, full of narrative sleights of hand. Yet this long and slow film is not dry and tiresome, it is full of the most delightful, unexpected wit. It also seduces with stunning cinematography: from the vast mythical landscapes, to the close scrutiny of faces.
This is serious cinema – not with a stern and pompous face, but a strange melancholic smile.
Since writing that, I’ve seen the film again and was even more impressed! I fully agree with Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian:-
I can only say it is a kind of masterpiece: audacious, uncompromising and possessed of a mysterious grandeur in its wintry pessimism.
Bradshaw goes on to say:-
Ceylan displays pure, exhilarating mastery in this film: it is made with such confidence and flair…With his two early features, Distant (2002) and Climates (2006), Ceylan has showed himself a superb film-maker. This is his greatest so far.
In an extended piece by Geoff Andrew in Sight and Sound (April 2012), which includes an interview with Ceylan, Andrew says:-
For many, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia was not only the most remarkable of the director’s six features (no mean achievement in itself, given the consistently high standard of his work); it was also the finest film in Cannes [last year] – and, for this writer, the greatest of last year.
Long and slow but wholly engrossing from opening shot onwards, the film’s lithe narrative – seemingly digressive but in fact meticulously constructed – begins at dusk and ends around the middle of the following day… As the rambling, shambling, for some time seemingly futile investigation proceeds, Ceylan uses it as the framework for a richly quizzical meditation on a range of themes… Though packed with piercing insights, the film never feels solemn, overloaded or excessively ‘arty’.
Most commentators note that the film is long and measured in pace. In the Sight and Sound interview Ceylan says:-
Compared to literature, where you’ve a lot of freedom in what you write, cinema seems bound by strict ‘rules’. The market pushes you to make films that last 90 minutes or so, or at least feel like that. But I wanted to break with that – I wanted audiences to feel at least some of the frustration the search party feel. My box office is pretty modest, and I thought that those people who insist on seeing short, fast movies are probably not going to come to mine anyway. So I didn’t really need to worry about them.
He makes an interesting comment about ambiguity in his films:-
In the cinema, if you don’t ensure that the audience’s imaginations are activated, you can’t go very deep. So I try to include lots of ambiguous details, so that everyone has to try and create their own ‘reality’ for the film. That said, ambiguity is certainly not the same as arbitrariness. Ambiguity should always be carefully worked out. As a director you always need to know the answers to any questions raised in your film.
And, on the character he most identifies with:-
[The doctor: ] he’s rather distant from the world around him, and I’m like that. He’s not so close to other people as the local townsfolk are.
This is taken up more fully by Jonathan Romney who interviews Ceylan in a piece in The Independent:-
In Turkey, Ceylan shuns the limelight. He never appears on TV or gives interviews, unless he’s taking a film to Cannes. “There I’m open to everyone … but in Turkey I shut myself off. I don’t generally answer the phone, unless I know it’s a friend.”
Yet Ceylan is a more social creature than that suggests. He wrote his last two films in a trio with Ebru [his wife] and Ercan Kesal. “We meet every day. We discuss a scene, and I give them homework. I also write and we read to each other … [but] the last decision is always mine.”
It seems to me that the doctor is the key to the film. As Dave Calhoun says in his Time Out review:-
…This investigation unsettles the doctor – just as, we imagine, Ceylan hopes to unsettle us as he takes us with him on this compelling, masterly journey.
A bit of trivia: Romney handily explains how to pronounce the director’s name:-
Nuri Bilge Ceylan – pronounced “Bil-ger Jey-lan”