Nuri Bilge Ceylan's sixth feature Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (aka Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da) is a police procedural in the most literal sense -- taking place within a span of 24 hours, the film follows a group of law-enforcement officers looking for a crucial piece of evidence in a murder investigation. But it isn't a crime drama in any traditional manner, and it's hardly a thriller. Instead, it's a thoughtful, deliberately paced character study that allows us to look into the hearts and minds of four men as they go about their work, while the events of the day unwittingly reveal a great deal about themselves, their culture, and their surroundings. On the surface, it's a film in which very little happens, but at its core it's a richly detailed essay about the intricacies of human nature and how experiences and environment can inform one's actions.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia opens late at night in a rural section of Anatolia in western Turkey. Three vehicles are making their way through the countryside, with the lead car carrying five men. Kenan (Firat Tanis) has confessed to a murder, but so far no one has found the body, and he's been brought along with police detective Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) and prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) to search for the corpse, which was buried in a field. Kenan freely admits he was drunk when the incident took place and it happened late at night, so his memories are foggy at best, and when the film begins, it's clear this group has already spent several hours driving from place to place without much luck. Joining these men are Arab Ali (Ahmet Memtaz Taylan), who serves as Naci's driver and gofer, and Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), a doctor who doubles as a forensic surgeon. As the night wears on, the five men -- followed by two vehicles full of soldiers and beat cops brought along to do the digging and heavy lifting -- wander from one locale to the next, looking for a corpse as a weary Kenan struggles with his memory. Eventually night gives way to morning and the body is finally uncovered, but we also learn the nature of the crime may be more ugly than originally imagined, and the lawmen have also revealed some secrets about themselves to one another.
Running over two and a half hours, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia takes a while to tell a fairly simple tale, but it's clear early on that the narrative isn't the point of this film. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ercan Kesal and Ebru Ceylan) is more interested in his characters than where the body is buried, and as the film goes along, he subtly allows them to open up to us and each other. Firat Tanis's Kenan is a cipher at first, a man seemingly shut down by fatigue and guilt, but he eventually displays the cruelty of a criminal. As Naci, Yilmaz Erdogan is short-tempered and brusque, yet he's frustrated not just by this investigation, but by a failing marriage and a son struggling with health problems (in a moment of dry wit, we discover Naci's cell phone has been programmed to play the theme from Love Story when his spouse calls). In the hands of Taner Birsel, Nusret is all cool confidence and authority, but he's also looking for either escape or absolution from a betrayal in his past. Muhammet Uzuner's Cemal is intelligent and soft-spoken, but is wrestling with a moral failure of his own. And while Ahmet Memtaz Taylan's Ali is often the butt of Naci's jokes, he's smarter than his boss thinks and more than a little resentful of the way others treat him, even if he rarely speaks his mind.
Ceylan gives his players all the room they need to flesh out their characters, and the result is a brilliantly acted film, short on fireworks but full of emotional interactions that are accurate and sometimes painfully honest. In many ways this story could take place anywhere, but Ceylan's Anatolia is a place marked by beauty as well as failures: His characters wonder aloud if their land is fit to join the European Union considering that many of their young people are moving away for better prospects, and they also note that poverty and bad politics have made electricity and running water unreliable commodities for many -- thankfully, the director uses these conversations to give the film a carefully constructed undertow. Ceylan also gets an invaluable assist from cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who finds a forbidding beauty in the long grass, waving grain, and shabby buildings that mark the journey of his characters, and the elegance of the movie's visuals is an ideal match for the revelations that gradually rise to the surface. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia earned the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and it's not hard to see why -- Ceylan's film is subtle, but it's also deep without becoming pretentious, and has been crafted with the touch of a master. Its gradual rhythms may mean it's not for everyone, but viewers with reasonable patience and a desire for intelligent, challenging fare should make a point of seeing this film, one of the most rewarding efforts of 2011.