CIFF Diary: Day 5, pt. 2: Searching for the Dead

10/11 - Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Cannes Grand Prix winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has been one of the most anticipated films of the CIFF, although judging from the fair number of walk-outs on Tuesday night it may divide audiences a bit, but not for the same reasons as Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.  While Von Trier's film may be similarly separated into two distinct halves, it lacks the careful meditation on the human conscience in the face of death that Ceylan so artfully achieves.  And, even though there are many aspects of Melancholia I admire, Ceylan does this without an ounce of contempt for his audience, even though he is similarly subverting narrative expectations along the way.  The difference with Anatolia is that the subversion is clear and thoughtful, with character usurping the primacy of plot, and the detoured destination of the film leaving those who stay the course a bit breathless (perhaps, for the first time at the fest since the opening of Melancholia).

Muhammet Uzuner as Dr. Cemal in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Ceylan is subverting a number of storytelling conventions here.  From the beginning it is clear there is a search involved, yet what is being sought is only revealed some time later in the film.  In this first half, as a murder mystery/police procedural, Anatolia allows it's primary characters to unfold through the humor of their flawed interactions as professionals.  This use of humor is beautifully tempered by the brooding performance of Firat Tanis as the primary suspect leading the police to a burial site that he seemingly cannot locate.  Among these police officials and men with shovels is Dr. Cemal, who emerges as the central character in the second half of the film.  As we travel the winding roads of rural Turkey with these men, Ceylan does not simply focus on the details of the search, but occasionally leaves you with the men who stay behind on the search.  For instance, in one memorable scene, we hear the Doctor converse with a driver that the other officers call "the Arab" about how to process an experience like this, "the Arab" giving him the advice that maybe it will at a least turn into "a story you can tell" in old age.  This sets up one of the primary tensions of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which is how to tell the story of death, particularly when death is everywhere in your profession.  Certainly, the reaction to the death at the center of Anatloia is exhibited in a much different manner through Tanis's character than any of the officers or the prosecutor, as they joke over the shallow grave of the victim about the prosecutor looking like Clark Gable.  And, even though this is a common cop movie trope, it is rarely interrogated or taken as far as Ceylan is willing to go.

Firat Tanis in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
In some ways, I see this as an elaboration on the storytelling technique that Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers established with No Country for Old Men a couple of years ago.  Similarly, I recall a screening of that film where there were 8-10 walk outs during the last 20 minutes of the film, as (I can only imagine) for those audience members the story was over.  Of course, what is so challenging and memorable about what the Coens do at the end of that film has to do with an attention to character that needs to endure after the plot has fully dissolved; with an empathy that must extend to a character who has failed to triumph over any of the evil he's encountered.  In Anatolia, that character is Cemal, left with the viscera of a corpse on his face, and the cold reflection of who he has become at the end of puzzling journey, as the world moves on outside his window.  Ceylan allows us much more reflective, meditative time with the doctor in the final passages of Anatolia  than the Coens did with Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), so much so that I began to wonder if the film would break under the weight of the creeping pace Ceylan establishes.  But this patience really pays off, and by the end I had finally experienced that rush that every festival goer seeks.  Also, from what I understand, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is exciting as a transitional film for Ceylan, though I can only speak from my experience of having seen his exceptional film Distant from 2002, which is definitely smaller in scope.  As for Anatolia, the cinematography is truly captivating, mysterious, and no doubt some of the most accomplished we'll see this year--it definitely calls for including a few more stills here, which probably say more about the artistic level of the film in a few shots than one could ever hope to say in few words:

Up Next:  A Conversation with John C. Reilly

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