The average movie run time is somewhere around the ninety minute mark. (I have no stats to back that statement up, but it feels about right.) There are several reasons for this, but the two most common probably have as much to do with the short attention span of audiences as it does the desire of studios and theaters to fit more screenings in per day. To those I would add that most movies don’t need more than two hours to tell their story.
But some do. Think Schindler’s List, The Godfather Part II, and JFK. These are big movies telling big stories, and they show that sometimes a film needs a longer canvas.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not one of those films. Which is unfortunate, because in every regard other than time management this is a fairly fascinating and engaging character drama.
“There’s good people and bad. You can never tell. If it comes to it, you have to be ruthless. And shoot them right between the eyes.”
Three cars make their way slowly across a vast and hilly plain at dusk. They come to a rest and several men exit and gather nearby. Two of them are in handcuffs, suspects in a murder, while the rest are on-hand to ensure the victim’s corpse is recovered and justice is served.
Or are they?
Several of policemen, soldiers and laymen seem utterly disinterested in the matter at hand. Geography, gossip and the number of times their fellow officers take a pee break seem to be more important than the murder suspect crammed into the seat between them. The prosecutor and doctor repeatedly return to a conversation about a woman who may or may not have killed herself while others get into a heated argument about buffalo yogurt.
That’s not to say there aren’t bigger questions to be found. The confessed murderer, Kenan (Firat Tanis), is mostly silent as he tries and fails to lead them to the body. Presumably it’s because the hills, trees, and small fountains look too similar in the dark, but could there be another reason he can’t quite find the right spot? Why is no one concerned when a second man confesses? What’s up with the dead man enjoying the cup of tea?
But as the evening sets in and makes its long trek toward morning it becomes clear the characters’ interest in the mundane is matched by the entirety of writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s film. Larger issues both practical and philosophical are teased sporadically throughout, but the overriding concern remains the smaller stories between characters. Those larger concerns are left to linger, and instead we see the inherent good and bad in how these people treat, judge and interact with their friends and neighbors. The developing discussion between Nusret (Taner Birsel) the prosecutor and Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) about the woman actually becomes the most telling and engaging thread across the more than two and a half hour running time.
That damn two and a half hour running time.
The film’s length seems to exist in directly inverse proportion to the size of the stories being told. We see the relationships between characters, including the distinctions that exist due to their individual cultures and daily lives, and learn what makes many of them tick. But these small discoveries are spread across a seemingly endless chronological landscape. Ceylan never moves his camera at a speed faster than snail, and we’re treated to long, static shots with little in the way of relevant action.
Granted, the film looks beautiful even as it threatens to eat up the next three days of your life. The opening hour takes place almost exclusively at night and sees many of its scenes lit solely with automobile headlights, but they look stunning. Some scenes take on a dreamlike quality as well including one where the group is welcomed into a home to rest and are served tea by an ethereally attractive and silent woman.
Ceylan’s film is telling of the society and people that make up the mostly rural Turkish region, and his characters are an intriguing blend of personalities. The ways in which they interact with each other and with the more mundane aspects of a bureaucracy are revealing, and even at over 150 minutes they never bore. Just imagine if they didn’t have to share the screen with an extra hour of filler…
The Upside: Beautiful nighttime cinematography; enough intriguing scenes and exchanges to fill a 90 minute movie.
The Downside: Overly long for the tale(s) being told.
On the Side: One of the plot keywords IMDB uses for this film is “Dead body in a car trunk.” There are 26 other films that also use it.