Three cars drive along a mountain road and through a landscape that will remain unfathomable. The headlights give the mountain turf a strange muted yellow glow. The men in the cars are on a mission to locate the victim of a murder but the corpse will not yield any evidence. The men in the three cars will never understand properly what happened between the victim and whoever murdered him. As the men wander the countryside, and occasionally stop to search and bicker, the viewer soon realises that the lives of the men are tainted by the bureaucratic hierarchy they serve. These are haunted men whose memories are not compatible with the discovery and understanding of evidence.
The movie ‘Once Upon A Time In Anatolia’ has a naff title but in every other detail it is probably
perfect. This is a marvellously schematic movie with every scene and line of dialogue neatly fitted into the premise that both memory and hierarchies are invariably inadequate. But if the movie is calculated there is not one moment, not a scene, performance or utterance, that feels contrived or unnatural. Admittedly, the movie is slow moving but this helps the viewer to share closely the experience of the men in the search party as they pass the long night. Small incidents that should have no significance become important, such as when the soldier offers biscuits to the prosecutor and the doctor within the team. When the soldier leaves and the prosecutor stops him to ask for another biscuit we not only understand how the hierarchy is constantly defining behaviour but are also tempted to think that the prosecutor needs comfort that is beyond his understanding. All this is apparent from a man asking for a biscuit. This is accomplished filmmaking.
Throughout, memory dominates the film. The prosecutor is unsure about the mysterious death of his wife. The doctor is mystified by the failure of his own relationship. The murderer cannot remember where he left the body and, indeed, if he could there would be no movie. Although they find the body when daylight appears, it has little consequence for the investigation. It is merely something that can be shown to the wife of the deceased before it is buried. The body itself is transported without body bags because nobody remembered to bring them. Inevitably, what should be remembered is forgotten. At the end of the movie, the memory of a key protagonist has a decisive role in how vital evidence is treated. Even the viewer is compromised by memory. We spend a lot of the movie trying to remember if the opening scene had a significance that may help. We are like the men in the car, unsure about how and why we remember.
‘Anatolia’, though, is much more than a distilled Proustian essay on memory. The group have lives diminished by position and status. The eminence of the prosecutor means he cannot identify his wife when he asks the doctor for an explanation of her mysterious death. If the ending is a consequence of memory, it is only feasible because the key protagonist pulls rank on a colleague. The men are very different to the typical heroes of crime movies. These pretend to fumble so they can avoid responsibility. They are sheltered by a bureaucratic shield but diminished by the group. Arab, one of the drivers, is the most resentful in the team because his rival has better driving jobs and collects all the overtime. He talks of how he copes with his frustration to the doctor by coming to the hills to fire his gun in the air and the doctor talks about how life has ultimately no meaning or consequence. This conversation, though, is not possible within the hierarchy. This is why their lips do not move as we listen to them talk openly. This is what the conversation would be between honest men and in the hierarchy no one is honest. Later, Arab does speak so the others can hear, ‘The mayor’s daughter, she was beautiful.’ None of the other men reply. Beautiful women are no longer relevant to them and, if they ever did exist in their lives, the memories of them have perished.
This week, ‘Vertigo’ was voted the best film in a ‘Sight and Sound’ poll of movie critics. It is all nonsense. The commercial but profound ‘Vertigo’ cannot be compared to ‘Anatolia’ and probably any other film. It may not even be the best movie Hitchcock made. True, it is his most ambitious and interesting but there are a couple of weak moments. ‘The Lady Vanishes’ and ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ are more modest but close to perfection. Verdicts soon unravel.
Hitchcock had a great talent for winning people over and now he is even dominating the polls of the experts. Tony Blair, with his ability to persuade and convince, and Danny Boyle, who has proved that he can appeal to worldwide audiences, also have winning ways. Men and women like them have dominated our recent history. There is, though, another kind of confidence. This belongs to the truly independent and exists in those men and women who have no need for popularity. And why should they? As Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘It is so easy to be popular’. These independent figures survive on their faith in their integrity and their belief in the potency of their own singular voice. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the co-writer and director of ‘Anatolia’, has that kind of confidence.
‘Anatolia’ is a great movie and may eventually appear in ‘Sight and Sound’ polls but it will not win vast audiences like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Some will find it too gloomy. They will baulk at the notion that our lives are meaningless and the endless competition for status is inconsequential. But the bleak attitudes do not preclude sly humour. The conversation about yoghurt would not be out of place in a Tarantino caper, and it takes a special kind of talent to make a successful joke about prostate cancer. Apart from the humour, though, there is enlightenment and that is never boring. We understand why the murder will only make sense to the murderer, the accomplices and the victims, and why even they are confused. Clarity cannot cope with our secrets and self-deceits.
There is a scene in ‘Anatolia’ where five men sit inside the car. The men are uncomfortable. The car is cramped. But they are also uneasy because there is no space in between the squeezed shoulders for the hierarchy that has conditioned them for so long. It made me think of the Memphis Mafia and Elvis and his employees and pretend friends. Hierarchies are dysfunctional, even those created by rock and roll stars. ‘Anatolia’ might have a political message, the human race took a wrong turn 3000 years ago and we now need change. Or maybe it just has a bleak view of human nature and Nuri Bilge Ceylan believes there is no alternative to wasted lives. Each viewer will have to decide. Either way this is a fabulous and rewarding film.
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