Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s confident and meditative sixth feature, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a film of two halves. The first half, set at night, follows the drawn-out search for a dumped body by a small party of police and other officials accompanied by the two men who confessed to a drunken murder and aren’t quite sure where they hid the remains. The second half, in grey daylight, deals with the finding of the body and the procedures that follow. 

Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki achieves a lush chiaroscuro in the film’s night-time section by lighting entire scenes either by car headlights or candlelight. The intimacy achieved by using real, restricted light sources pays off in psychological intensity as the tired characters trudge from one desolate field to another, following the suspects’ gnomic, half-remembered markers: “a fountain,” “a round tree.” As the search drags on through the night and into the dreary morning, tempers fray. The medical doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and the police prosecutor (Taner Birsel) who accompany the search party maintain a wry aloofness. But the prosecutor is strangely fixated on the story of a friend’s misfortune, and the doctor harbours unspoken misgivings about the killing and its consequences – anxieties that will lead to startling revelations in the cold light of day.

Anatolia is about, among other things, people doing their jobs under difficult circumstances. The grisly and incompetent murder deprives a child of a father, but it also creates a corpse – one that has to be located, written up, transported and autopsied, with all details of the crime determined for the record. At one point professional protocol comes sharply into conflict with the private sense of right, triggering an ethical crisis – which of the two should ultimately claim our loyalty? It is through watching the characters at work, with all the boredom and frustration and persistence that entails, that we gain insight into their rich and agonising private worlds. 

Tiryaki’s neutral and compassionate camera supports the reflective mood that Ceylan works hard to develop here, allowing the psychological revelations to build slowly. This demands a certain degree of patience and trust from the audience, especially in the section showing the search, which manages to impart some of the oppressive melancholy and weariness felt by the characters themselves. But the cumulative effect is devastating. Stick with it, and you will find this is one of those rare films that continue to disclose its riches long after the credits have rolled. 

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