Text by Heikki A. Kovalainen
To start the new academic year 2016–2017, we had the pleasure of watching Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012), a meditative murder mystery by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, having made his name earlier with the film Uzak – Distant (and winning Palme d’or at Cannes with Winter Sleep in 2014). The film was chosen and introduced to us by our colleagues, Mahmut Mutman and Meyda Yegenoglu, who were most kind to give us a chance to develop our own interpretations of the film, alongside their perspectives.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as Prof. Mutman noted in his general remarks on the film, is a film having won high praise in the corpus of an impressive director. The film numbers, among other rankings, in the BBC’s The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films (placing 54th on that list), so our expectations were high.
Ceylan’s film, however, poses multiple challenges to the spectator, since it treats not only its protagonists but also its central events in a deceptively simple manner. The film circles around a minimalistic plot: Five men drive around the Anatolian steppes, searching for a lost body that is finally found once night turns to day, and the ensuing events seek to make sense of what the murder means. All of the protagonists are men (the murder suspect, a police officer, a prosecutor, a doctor and the chauffeur “Arab”), making up a kind of Kafkaesque constellation of bureaucratic and professional roles, with intertwined interests. No attempts are made to disguise their masculinity.
Some spectators, indeed, may see the film as a nonreflective treatment of masculinity, with allegorical reflections on the meaning of life. I, however, resist an allegorical reading of the film not least because the film refers more to itself than to other texts. This is the case, in particular, with the little stories-within-a-story in the film. Most importantly, there’s a recurring narrative being told between the protagonists of a woman having committed suicide, allegedly to take revenge on her husband guilty of betrayal. Thus the theme of feminine protest surfaces in the film, albeit obliquely.
Among the discussants present in our film session, disagreement arose precisely on this front: to do with the treatment of women in the film. I’ll address this point only briefly, since the matter is complex. Our interpretations of the film varied from virtual misogynism to reading it as a feminist criticism of masculine power structures. Perhaps the best synthetic remark in this respect was made by Pirjo Nikander, who noted the film’s dealing with ubiquitous power structures (be they between men, or anybody else); how they pervade our human lives at every possible level.
Second, a less heated debate emerged concerning the question of aesthetic uniqueness of the film. There were those among us who thought the film was good but not unique and those for whom the film really stood out as a distinctive cinematographic accomplishment. I count myself in the latter group, largely because the film’s narration is exceptionally coherent: with all the dialogues forming an intricate network of cross-references; with the cinematography showing masterful treatment of light and shade both in the night and in daytime; and with the sophisticated use of rhetorical strategies such as formalist techniques of defamiliarization.
Defamiliarization takes place in the film, in particular, through a repeated gesture of showing a sequence of events taking place, say, an examination of the dead body, coupled with verbal dictation of these very events onto a police investigation tape – which creates an odd effect of coupling not entirely dissimilar to defamiliarization. For me, all of this contributes to a distinctive aesthetic experience. I view Once Upon a Time In Anatolia as a phenomenological, down-to-earth depiction of men seeking to find the truth of who died and how. The interactions between the protagonists are depicted with exceptional smoothness and spontaneity, interrupted mostly only by bodily scruples linked with eating biscuit, yoghurt, apples or pumpkins.
Discussion on the relative uniqueness of a given work of art may be ultimately futile, for even the great classics in the history of any art form are in some respects unique but in others not so much (just think of, say, Hamlet, which consists not only of a plagiarized plot but also plagiarized lines, in addition to those penned by Shakespeare). Whether a book or a film earns our high praise depends on how we, as readers or spectators, are successful in interpreting overt and covert messages of the piece, unveiling the artistic techniques doing their work through the artwork at hand.