FILM OF THE WEEK: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
by Steve Dollar
Time's up, cinema aesthetes. Ring out the old, ring in the new. Stop looking at those 10 best lists and get on with your lives. The calendar has flipped over into 2012 and... I've already got a new #1. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which opens today in New York, will have plenty of competition throughout the coming year. Guaranteed, though, you will see very few films as masterfully designed and executed, or so heavy with thought that the extended silences that suspend the characters in time and space make even the most seemingly mundane interludes of dialogue (and there's a ton of dialogue by Ceylan's minimalist standard) feel loaded with quietly devastating significance. Imagine, for the sake of cultural transliteration, the banal, jocular nature of—say, a traveling salesman joke—shared between two gruff men, strangers yoked together by professional duty, breaking the boredom of a marathon overnight detail that threatens not to end with the dawn. On one level, it's just a little rough humor to pass time, break ice. But in this scenario, lines that might be throwaway someplace else turn resonant, the lure of hidden meanings plunged like an anchor against the elliptical drift.
Ceylan proposes a mystery, even though the crime has been solved. Much as in his 2008 Three Monkeys, there's a dead body to kick the story into motion. In that earlier film, a tragic accident and a cover-up set the stage for a domestic meltdown. Here, the corpse is the focus of an arduous search. As the film opens, a tiny caravan of cars winds slowly along an isolated road that curves through the Anatolian steppes. Dusk settles into night, the yellow glare of headlights illuminating a tall tree that divides the purple horizon, limbs rustling in the breeze. The stationary camera sits far enough away from the action that the entire scene unfolds against a painterly tableaux, the dialogue and slamming car doors close-miked so that you hear the terse, impatient voices before matching them to any faces.
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